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Analysis & Opinion
26.05.10 Grandmaster Flash
By Roland Oliphant

Anatoly Karpov, chess grandmaster, former world champion and diligently a-political public figure, has found himself on a collision course with the Kremlin over the future of world chess. By standing for the Russian nomination for World Chess Federation (FIDE) president he has challenged the incumbent, President of the Republic of Kalmykia Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, and clashed with his ally, the high-ranking Kremlin aide Arkady Dvorkovich.

For newsroom editors across the world, the idea of Karpov “battling with the Kremlin” for the future of world chess was too good a headline to miss. But this struggle seems to be less about politics than about personal prestige, allegiances and somewhat opaque business relationships.

The scandal – by now well documented in the Russian and Western press – erupted on May 14, when the Russian Chess Federation (RCF) met in Moscow to elect its candidate for president of FIDE – the sport’s governing body.
A meeting of the RCF’s governing council at its usual venue elected Karpov. But Dvorkovich, who is chairman of the RFC’s advisory board, had already announced in April that Ilyumzhinov would be the Russian candidate. He immediately claimed that the meeting lacked a quorum and Karpov’s nomination was therefore “illegitimate.” Days later, personnel from a private security firm carrying a document signed by Dvorkovich evicted Chairman of the RCF Alexander Bach from his office and closed the group’s headquarters in Moscow.

Bitter disputes in professional bodies over electoral protocol and the interests of rival factions are not that uncommon in Russia – a similar civil war in the Russian Cinematographers’ Union finally led to a schism this April. But the employment of tactics more commonly associated with corporate raiding has raised the very good question of what on earth is at stake. Has the Kremlin decided to fire Ilyumzhinov as president of Kalmykia and offer him the FIDE crown as a consolation prize? Are there murky business connections at stake? Or is it, as so often in chess, simply about the egos of the main players?

And what players they are. Karpov is a grandmaster and former world champion from the halcyon days of the 1970s and 1980s, when, as he likes to remind voters, his battles with Garry Kasparov made headline news across the world. Ilyumzhinov, by contrast, is an eccentric self-made millionaire and republican president who was once touted as a potential future president of Russia.

And it is the personalities that make the contest so intriguing. Skeptics of the political conspiracy argue that Karpov is an instinctively conciliatory character. Unlike, say, Garry Kasparov, whose fiery temper is well-known in and outside the chess world, Karpov “is all about compromise,” said Mark Glukhovsky, chief editor of the Russian chess journal 64. And if he’s not the kind of man to go looking for a fight in any case, he almost certainly would not pick one with the Kremlin.

In marked contrast to Kasparov, who has effectively become a pariah in Russia since joining the radical democratic opposition, Karpov has conscientiously avoided politics almost entirely – and he seems keen to continue to. “Nothing interests me except chess,” he told Radio Liberty in an interview this week. “And Garry Kasparov, with whom we're working, understands that.”

Karpov’s electoral platform is based on “modernization” – the favorite buzzword of President Dmitry Medvedev – and “change,” the beloved noun of Western electioneers from U.S. President Barack Obama to the new UK Prime Minister David Cameron.

Chess, Karpov lamented in his bid for nomination, is in crisis. Gone are the days when hundreds of foreign correspondents covered world championship matches between the likes of himself and Kasparov, or Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer. The game is obscure, and world titles held in Sofia cannot compete with Paris, New York or Moscow. He accuses Ilyumzhinov of failing to exploit the potential of modern technology, allowing FIDE to be outrun on the Internet by private chess companies, and allowing the popularity and prominence of the game to flag. “It’s time for the professionals to take over,” he writes in his manifesto, in a reference to Ilyumzhinov’s unfortunate remark that for him chess is a “hobby.”

It’s a classic anti-incumbent campaign, attacking Ilyumzhinov’s record over the past 15 years as FIDE president and his more embarrassing gaffes – he has claimed to have been abducted by aliens and in a recent television appearance spoke about retiring to live in a monastery.

The thing is, Karpov is not the only one laying into the Kalmyk president’s eccentricities. The comments Karpov’s campaign gleefully refer to were made on the Vladimir Pozner show, a prime time interview slot on Russia’s state-owned Channel One – and he wasn’t treated especially kindly. “If you’re put on national television, on a state-run channel, and presented as not very healthy – a crazy guy – it’s not an accident,” said Nikolai Petrov, an expert on regional affairs at the Moscow Carnegie Center. The implication is that Ilyumzhinov has indeed fallen out of favor with the Kremlin.

But that doesn’t mean Dvorkovich, whose day job is as an economic advisor to president Medvedev, is acting on the orders of his boss. “I’m not sure what Dvorkovich’s interest in cooperation with Ilyumzhinov is, but it’s definitely an ongoing cooperation,” said Petrov.

Some rumors – and they are no more than rumors – suggest that the two have business links through the Mirax construction company, where Dvorkovich’s brother works as an adviser to the chairman. Others suggest the two may be plotting to divide the revenues of a proposed movement of the FIDE headquarters from Switzerland to Moscow. Glukhovsky, for his part, reckons the fight is really about power. “Whoever is president gets access to considerable administrative resources,” he said.

But then, maybe Dvorkovich simply has his own preference as a chess player. After all, his involvement with the RCF has hardly been idle, and he has personal reasons to care about the game – his father, Vladimir Dvorkovich, was a prominent Soviet Chess grandmaster who trained both Karpov and Kasparov.

And now? The vote itself will take place at the FIDE congress and Olympiad in the Siberian oil town of Khanty-Mansiysk in September. So far, Karpov and Ilyumzhinov are the only candidates.

No one knows who is going to win. Karpov boasts an impressive PR machine, New York-based campaign headquarters and the backing of major grandmasters including Kasparov and the UK’s Nigel Short. He also has endorsements from 16 national chess associations, not including the disputed Russian vote, including the American, English and Egyptian associations.

But Ilyumzhinov is not to be written off. “For Karpov the campaign is important because he has never been FIDE president. For Ilyumzhinov the situation is slightly different because he’s been president for 15 years and everyone knows his record,” said Glukhovsky.
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