World chess has been roiled by an apparent palace intrigue after the game's governing body announced the resignation of its controversial longtime leader, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, a former Russian governor who rejected the announcement and suggested he was the target of an American plot.
The World Chess Federation (FIDE) said in a March 27 statement that Ilyumzhinov, whose leadership has been backed by the Kremlin, had "announced his resignation" as president the previous day following a board meeting in Athens.
"The Presidential Board has been formally advised of this announcement and an extraordinary board meeting has been called in April," the statement said.
Ilyumzhinov, however, immediately hit back at FIDE's announcement of his resignation, telling the state-run TASS news agency the same day that he had "not signed anything, and I don't plan to step down."
Later, he told Russian state television that "[FIDE presidential] elections are due in September ; thus there are 11/2 years to go, and then we'll see."
"At the moment I am carrying out my duties as FIDE president," he said.
During his more than 20 years at the helm of FIDE, Ilyumzhinov has repeatedly faced accusations of corruption from critics.
His opponents also say he has scared off potential sponsorship money by fraternizing with despots, including Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Muammar Qaddafi of Libya, and by making bizarre statements.
Ilyumzhinov claims not only that extraterrestrials bestowed chess on humanity, but also that he was once abducted by aliens.
Ilyumzhinov, who was hit with U.S. sanctions in 2015 over his alleged support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, added that he saw "American hands" in what he called a plot to oust him at FIDE.
"These are intrigues of the American chess federation and their allies," he was quoted by TASS as saying. "They've repeatedly tried to do this. In Athens, they tried to raise the issue of my resignation, but it didn't work. In general, I am even getting threats. They’re demanding that I resign."
Ilyumzhinov's assistant, Berik Balgabaev, told Chess.com that the announcement was "fake news."
In a March 27 letter to FIDE Executive Director Nigel Freeman, Ilyumzhinov disavowed what he called "messages about my alleged resignation" published "in the mass media," though he did not mention that the source for these reports was the FIDE website.
“I have not submitted any official requests for my resignation and do not intend to,” Ilyumzhinov said in the letter, which was obtained by RFE/RL.
Freeman told RFE/RL in a telephone interview that "at the end of the" March 26 board meeting in Athens, Ilyumzhinov said: "I resign."
Freeman declined to comment further, referring other questions to the FIDE statement. He said the organization would respond to Ilyumzhinov in a statement to be published on the organization’s website on March 28.
FIDE chief executive officer Geoffrey Borg and the organization’s spokeswoman, Anastasia Karlovych, both referred RFE/RL to the March 27 statement when asked about the matter.
Ilyumzhinov, a chess-obsessed wealthy businessman, served as president of Kalymkia from 1993-2010. During his nearly two decades in power there, he was accused by political opponents of running the tiny republic as his personal fiefdom.
One of his aides was convicted of the 1998 murder of journalist Larisa Yudina, editor in chief of the newspaper "Soviet Kalmykia Today."
Flexing Diplomatic Muscle
Yudina's supporters believed she was targeted for her newspaper's frequent criticism of Ilyumzhinov, though he told The New York Times in 2010 that he hardly knew the convicted killer and that he had previously helped Yudina's newspaper.
Ilyumzhinov was first elected FIDE president in 1995, and his reelections as in 2006, 2010, and 2014 were marred by allegations of corruption and unfairness in the voting.
In his 2014 reelection, he defeated former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent critics.
The Kremlin flexed its diplomatic muscle to lobby against Kasparov in the election, with Russian embassies worldwide contacting national chess federations to drum up support for Ilyumzhinov.
Moscow also objected to the U.S. sanctions announced against Ilyumzhinov in November 2015.
The U.S. Treasury Department accused Ilyumzhinov of "materially assisting and acting for or on behalf of the government of Syria" and the Central Bank of Syria in order to purchase oil from militants of the radical Islamist group Islamic State (IS).
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke by telephone with then-Secretary of State John Kerry after the sanctions were announced and "expressed his outrage," the Russian Foreign Ministry said.
Following the sanctions, Ilyumzhinov formally recused himself from "any legal, financial, and business operations" of FIDE.
He has since vowed to sue the U.S. government for $50 billion over the punitive measures, saying the proceeds would go toward promoting democracy in the United States