For nearly a decade, chess legend Garry Kasparov has tried to mobilize domestic and global opposition against Russian President Vladimir Putin. Now, as the former world champion seeks election to the international chess world’s highest office, the Kremlin is striking back.
The Russian government has flexed its diplomatic muscle to lobby against Kasparov’s campaign for the presidency of the World Chess Federation, known by its French acronym FIDE, ahead of the August 11 election to be held in Tromso, Norway.
Russian embassies throughout the world have contacted national chess federations to drum up support for Kasparov’s opponent in the race, incumbent Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, a former Russian regional boss who has presided over FIDE for the past 19 years.
“When I answered the phone I thought it was a hoax, somebody’s idea of a joke, because I don’t normally get phoned up by the Russian Embassy,” Pete Morriss, chairman of the Irish Chess Union, said of the phone call he received earlier this year. “But it turned out it was real.”
Morriss heads one of numerous federations in the West backing Kasparov, 52, in the bitter campaign, in which both sides have lobbed accusations of bullying, corruption, and dirty tricks.
The election pits a bona fide global superstar widely seen as the greatest chess player in history against the eccentric ex-president of Russia’s tiny Kalmyk Republic, who claims not only that extraterrestrials bestowed chess on humanity but also that he was once abducted by aliens.
But with the Kremlin’s backing and nearly two decades of cultivating support among FIDE’s 181 member nations as the organization’s president, Ilyumzhinov, 52, will not be easy to unseat, chess-watchers say.
Kasparov’s intensive campaigning in Africa and Asia could eat into the incumbent’s base, though Ilyumzhinov’s influence in the Americas remains strong, said British grandmaster Nigel Short, a Kasparov supporter and the English Chess Federation’s delegate in the election.
“It’s going to be immensely close,” Short told RFE/RL.
That the Russian government would wield its influence to stymie Kasparov’s bid for the FIDE presidency is perhaps unsurprising.
The former world champion, after all, has been among Putin’s most vocal and relentless critics since retiring from the game in 2005 to dedicate his energy to Russian politics and trying, unsuccessfully, to unseat Putin. Furthermore, Russia remains a chess powerhouse, and senior government officials have overseen its national chess federation over the past decade.
Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, current president of the World Chess Federation (FIDE), at a press conference in India in 2010
In June, Putin himself appeared in public with Ilyumzhinov and later held talks with the FIDE president behind closed doors, according to Russian media reports.
Morriss, the Irish Chess Union chairman, said he received the call from the Russian Embassy sometime in January. His interlocutor said that the Russian government “would prefer it if Mr. Ilyumzhinov was elected,” Morriss told RFE/RL.
“He was wanting to know what we thought about the candidates, I think in the view that if I came out with a reason why we didn’t like him, that he could then try and come up with an argument against that,” Morriss said.
Similar calls were placed to the national chess federation of the Czech Republic and to the Norwegian Chess Federation, the heads of those organizations told RFE/RL.
Joran Aulin-Jansson, the president of the Norwegian Chess Federation, said the Russian Embassy in Oslo contacted him sometime in March and that he met personally with the Russian ambassador.
“They informed me that the Russians were supporting Ilyumzhinov and that they hoped that the Norwegians also would,” said Aulin-Jansson, Norway’s delegate in the FIDE election.
The Norwegian federation, however, is backing Kasparov.
“We believe he will be a better man to attract bigger sponsorships, and he has some new ideas towards chess that we like,” Aulin-Jansson said. “And on the other side, we feel that Mr. Ilyumzhinov has been in power now for 19 years, and, well, we think that’s enough.”
Several other national federations had been contacted by Russian embassies advocating for Ilyumzhinov as well, including federations in Kenya, Myanmar, Jamaica, and Singapore, Buzzfeed reported in June.
Kasparov, an enfant terrible of Soviet chess who in 1985 dethroned the Kremlin’s favorite player, Anatoly Karpov, at the age of 22, has seized every opportunity to use the Russian government’s support of Ilyumzhinov to discredit his opponent.
“They’re fully backed by Putin’s regime,” Kasparov said of the Ilyumzhinov team at a press conference this week. “Every Russian embassy in the world has been mobilized to support Mr. Ilyumzhinov and to keep him in the office. And we do understand it’s not about chess. This is a pure political fight.”
Russia’s Foreign Ministry did not respond to a request for comment about efforts by its diplomats to lobby for Ilyumzhinov.
The Money Question
Kasparov’s supporters say his most significant asset as FIDE president would be his ability to generate sponsorship from major companies in the West who may be wary of the murky origins of Ilyumzhinov’s personal wealth and his past dealings with dictators like deceased strongmen Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Muammar Qaddafi of Libya.
“What I have seen in several countries is Kasparov going to places, generating enormous amounts of excitement and publicity, and also attracting sponsorship,” said Short, who challenged and lost to Kasparov in a 1993 world championship match.
The flip side, of course, is that sponsorship for FIDE events inside of Russia would likely dry up should Kasparov win, particularly from state-owned companies like energy giant Gazprom, which has funded major chess tournaments in recent years.
Short says the trade-off would be worth it. “We will lose Russia and we will gain the rest of the world. I think it’s a reasonable deal,” he said.
In June, Ilyumzhinov announced that world champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway would defend his title against India’s Viswanathan Anand in November in Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi, the host city of the 2014 Winter Olympics, with a prize fund of up to $1.5 million.
Garry Kasparov, a fierce critic of Vladimir Putin's leadership of Russia, has a record of divisiveness, according to some.
Kasparov said this week that if he is elected president, he would seek to immediately change the venue, citing U.S. and EU sanctions against Moscow, and increase the prize money for the event.
“The match will not take place in a country that is under sanctions, in the region where the government is under sanctions, with a lousy prize fund and without any positive publicity,” Kasparov told the Norwegian newspaper "Dagbladet."
“I make a pledge: In 45 days, we’ll bring this match to a proper location, with a proper prize fund, to make sure that the game of chess will benefit and both players will be happy,” Kasparov added.
Ilyumzhinov, who says he made his fortune in the decade following the Soviet collapse through investments and running dealerships selling foreign automobiles, has defended his track record in attracting corporate sponsorship and says his campaign is committed to “making chess appealing to sponsors and partners.”
Ilyumzhinov’s campaign did not respond to an interview request.
Many in the chess world say the acrimony and underhandedness in the current race for the FIDE presidency is unprecedented.
Kasparov’s supporters have accused the Ilyumzhinov campaign of buying votes and trying to rig the election by replacing delegates backing the challenger.
In Afghanistan, chess official Mahmoud Hanif claims Ilyumzhinov and his backers illegally organized his ouster as the president of the Afghan Chess Federation due to his support for Kasparov.
Ilyumzhinov’s campaign, meanwhile, claims the move was made because Hanif allegedly misused funds. It accused Kasparov of exploiting the dispute and sinking “into a mire of lies trying to incite any scandal they can ahead of the elections to sway the election results.”
Hanif told RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan that authorities are currently examining the legality of his removal.
Ilyumzhinov’s campaign has also accused Kasparov of trying to buy votes by signing a contract with a Singapore-based FIDE official, Ignatius Leong, promising $500,000 in funding for a children’s chess academy owned by Leong if the official delivers “a minimum of 10 + 1 vote from his region, with the effort to deliver 15 votes (not counting China).”
After a draft of the contract was leaked to “The New York Times” in January, Kasparov released a copy of the document, citing the “principle of transparency” that he has touted as central to his campaign. All of the money is to be used to develop chess in East Asia, according to the contract.
Track Record Questions
While he is nearly universally revered for his prowess as a player, Kasparov also carries with him a reputation as a divisive personality with a spotty organizational track record. In 1993, he and Short broke from FIDE to create the Professional Chess Association, though the organization petered out after three years.
This is one reason cited by Canada’s national chess federation in its decision earlier this year to support Ilyumzhinov, a move that turned some heads in the West.
“I understand he’s a great chess player, but his record as an administrator is not that good,” said Vladimir Drkulec, president of the Chess Federation of Canada.
That criticism was echoed by one FIDE grandmaster who said Kasparov “does not like opposing views” and that he “gets bored easily.”
The grandmaster, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that while he is highly skeptical of Kasparov’s ability to bring positive change to the chess world, his “on-the-fence” position “is getting shakier day by day.”
“It would appear [Ilyumzhinov] is being even more brazen this time around,” the grandmaster said.
One grandmaster who has voiced his support for Kasparov is current world champion Magnus Carlsen, an affable, handsome 23-year-old widely seen as someone who could broaden the game’s mainstream popularity, much like Kasparov and American world champion Bobby Fischer before him.
Short says that if FIDE grandmasters could vote, Kasparov would defeat Ilyumzhinov with a 9-1 ratio. It is the delegates from the member federations who will cast the secret ballots on August 11, not the players.
“All of this is completely irrelevant,” he said. “It’s only the people who put their X’s on the ballot sheet that count.”
RFE/RL's Russian Service and Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report