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World Chess Federation Board To Meet After U.S. Sanctions Russian Chief

Ilyumzhinov, who has headed FIDE for the past 20 years, has claimed he was once abducted by aliens, and that extraterrestrials bestowed chess on humanity. His critics have long accused him of corruption and involvement in murky financing schemes -- allegations he has repeatedly denied.

The governing body of world chess is set to convene a snap meeting that officials say will likely address the U.S. sanctions imposed on its longtime president, an eccentric former Russian official, for his alleged support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The December 6 meeting of the presidential board of the World Chess Federation (FIDE) in Athens coincides with a push by Kirsan Ilyumzhinov to arrange a world championship match in the United States next year.

"The invitation came exactly after the announcement of the United States about our president, and I believe this will be discussed," FIDE Vice President and presidential board member Israel Gelfer told RFE/RL on December 1.

The sanctions, announced by the U.S. Treasury Department on November 25, were the latest allegations of wrongdoing to dog Ilyumzhinov, an ex-president of a poor, southern Russian region known as the Kalmykia Republic.

Ilyumzhinov, who has headed FIDE for the past 20 years, has claimed he was once abducted by aliens, and that extraterrestrials bestowed chess on humanity. His critics have long accused him of corruption and involvement in murky financing schemes -- allegations he has repeatedly denied.

FIDE had not announced the meeting on its official calendar as of December 1, though two other presidential board members and Ilyumzhinov's assistant, Berik Balgabayev, confirmed to RFE/RL that it was slated to be held on December 6.

The sudden meeting comes as FIDE and its official commercial partner are trying to organize the next world chess championship match in the United States in November 2016.

The planned match would pit the current world champion, Norwegian phenom Magnus Carlsen, against the winner of an eight-player candidates tournament, to be held in Moscow in March, that includes two grandmasters representing the United States: Hikaru Nakamura and Fabiano Caruana.

U.S. Trip Delayed

Ilyumzhinov has rejected the Treasury Department's allegations that he was involved in "materially assisting and acting for or on behalf of" Assad's government.

"I want to emphasize that I have never had any kind of commercial interests in Syria or Iran," Ilyumzhinov told Interfax last week.

The Treasury Department said in its statement that under the action against Ilyumzhinov and several other individuals and entities, "all assets of those designated that are in the United States or that are in the control of U.S. persons are frozen, and U.S. persons are generally prohibited from engaging in transactions with them."

The statement did not say, however, that Ilyumzhinov was banned from entering the United States.

In a November 29 interview with Russia's independent Dozhd TV, Ilyumzhinov said that the sanctions "may interfere with my work in popularizing chess in the entire world, including in" the United States.

He told Dozhd that he planned "in the coming days" to visit Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York to "inspect potential host cities" for the world championship match and "meet with sponsors."

That trip is on hold for now following the announcement of the U.S. sanctions. Balgabayev told RFE/RL in a December 1 telephone interview that Ilyumzhinov first "wants to understand in general what claims they have against him."

"Because that which is written on the [Treasury Department] website does not hold up under any scrutiny," Balgabayev said.

Ilyumzhinov "still plans" to visit the United States and these plans will "become clear in the near future," he said.

Ilyumzhinov's critics say he has scared away chess sponsors by fraternizing with an array of authoritarian leaders and dictators, including the late Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi of Iraq and Libya, respectively, as well as Assad, whom he met in Damascus in 2012.

The Kremlin has staunchly backed Ilyumzhinov's reign over world chess, even mobilizing Russia's diplomatic corps to help shore up his grip on power.

When Russian chess legend Garry Kasparov, a prominent critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, challenged Ilyumzhinov for the FIDE presidency last year, Russian embassies throughout the world lobbied national chess federations to back the incumbent.

Sanctions 'Not Going To Help'

Balgabayev said that if the planned world championship match in the United States fell through, the firm that holds the commercial rights to stage FIDE events -- a small firm called Agon Ltd that is registered in the tax haven of Jersey in the Channel Islands -- would be able to find an alternate site.

"If some problems arise [in the United States], I think Agon will not have great difficulties moving the match, possibly, to another place," he told RFE/RL.

Agon's chief executive, Ilya Merenzon, said the U.S. sanctions "are not going to impact" plans to hold the match in the United States, because Ilyumzhinov "is a separate entity from FIDE and from chess."

"But it's certainly not going to help, unfortunately.... We'll check with the Treasury [Department], full disclosure, and stuff like that. It's not obviously going to help. But it's not going to affect the championship," he said.

Merenzon said the company was looking at San Francisco and New York as possible host cities for the match, with a plan to work with both public and private sponsors.

Neither the mayor's office in San Francisco or New York City responded to November 30 inquiries about whether the U.S. sanctions against Ilyumzhinov would affect their readiness to be involved in the match.

FIDE Vice President Herbert Bastian, a presidential board member from Germany, told RFE/RL that he believed the December 6 board meeting is about the sanctions, though he said he will not be able to attend.

Fellow Vice President and board member Beatriz Marinello of the United States characterized the meeting as a routine quarterly gathering.

Balgabayev echoed this description, saying FIDE had made "several attempts to gather this presidential board, but now decided that this was the right time."

"If someone wants to discuss the issue [of sanctions], it's no problem," he said.

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.