Worldcup Site
The Times
June 15 1998 No. 66 228

      Last updated at 01.43 BST with 360 articles

Thomas de Waal examines the disturbing questions facing a leader who is devoted to chess

The president who pawned his people

The murky cloud over a tiny Russian republic is getting blacker. Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, the head of the International Chess Federation (Fidé) and President of Kalmykia, has already been accused of corruption; last week his most prominent critic, a fearless female journalist, was abducted and murdered. If this has gone largely unreported, it is perhaps because the sport concerned is the rarefied world of chess, which few follow so closely as football or tennis, and the murder took place in a remote Russian city called Elista.

Still aged just 36, Mr Ilyumzhinov is the head of the only Buddhist region in Europe, the autonomous republic of Kalmykia, by the Caspian Sea. As president of Fidé, he brought the world title match between Anatoly Karpov and Gata Kamsky to his tiny capital of Elista.

He loves to make extravagant promises: that for instance he will buy Diego Maradona for the local football team (languishing in the Russian Second Division), or that every Kalmyk shepherd out in the steppe will be provided with a satellite telephone. All very amusing, though less so to the Kalmyks, who are desperately poor and waiting for him to deliver on his pledges.

But now the story has gone beyond the realms of Evelyn Waugh farce. On June 7 the Editor of the independent newspaper Sovetskaya Kalmykia, Larisa Yudina, went missing. She had been summoned to a meeting by a man who said he was offering her new information on Mr Ilyumzhinov's financial dealings. She never came back. Her body was discovered the next evening, brutally stabbed with a knife.

Mrs Yudina had been conducting a fearless campaign to investigate corruption in Kalmykia. In particular she wanted to know what happened to $70 million-worth of funds to buy Kalmyk wool that were allocated to a commercial firm headed by Kirsan Ilyumzhinov in 1992 and then went missing. Shortly after the firm disbanded, Mr Ilyumzhinov was elected President of Kalmykia.

Mrs Yudina's researches were unwelcome. She was threatened and evicted from her offices and there was an attempt to burn down the door of her flat. Mr Ilyumzhinov stopped her printing her newspaper in Kalmykia, so - in a case of samizdat for the 1990s - she had it published in Volgograd, 200 miles away, and brought in to the republic every week by Lada.

Mr Ilyumzhinov meanwhile went from strength to strength. He has had his presidential term extended to the year 2002. A fanatical chess player, he was elected president of Fidé and is planning to bring his own knockout version of the world chess championship and the chess olympiad to Elista later this year.

The President has used chess as his passport to international renown. All over Kalmykia, children are attending special chess schools. He also claims to be building a "chess city", modelled on the Olympic villages of the West. The city will remind most Russians of a fictional fraudster called Ostap Bender from the classic Soviet comic novel The Twelve Chairs. He, too, said he wanted to build a chess city, called Noviye Vasyuki; it never got built and Bender disappeared with the money. Bender, like Ilyumzhinov, had lots of charm; certainly, it takes panache to squander much of a small republic's budget on the beautiful game of chess - not unlike King Ludwig II of Bavaria's love affair with Wagnerian opera. But the net result is the same: a poor country suffering under one man and his whims.

When I went to Elista two years ago, I found it dusty and depressed and the people polite but evasive. Only Mrs Yudina's stuffy offices provided some fresh air. She was deadpan and ironic in a completely Russian way; yet only real courage could keep a defenceless woman in her fifties fighting for the truth in this remote place. And they really feared her. After my visit to the newspaper offices, the presidential press secretary decided to cancel my scheduled interview with Mr Ilyumzhinov. He said he was "disappointed" and said he would ring The Times and have a word with the Editor about my conduct.

We do not know who killed Mrs Yudina. The Kalmyk authorities were quick to say that it was a criminal murder. Her colleagues and reporters are sure it was a political killing, planned by those who wanted to shut her up. If that is so, it raises the most disturbing questions about the politics of Kalmykia.

Russia-watchers should ask questions, too. The way Kalmykia is run is proof of the way democracy is still a political weapon, not an end in itself. In some areas such as Moscow and St Petersburg, democratic politics is a stick for President Yeltsin to beat the communist opposition with. But men such as Mr Ilyumzhinov, or Murtaza Rakhimov of Bashkortostan, delivered a solid vote for Mr Yeltsin in 1996, while trampling on democracy at home. So long as Mr Ilyumzhinov remains a Yeltsin loyalist, the Kremlin is unlikely to question how he spends his money or how his bravest critic came to be so callously murdered.

The author was last week presented with a James Cameron award for his reporting on Chechnya for The Times; the award was shared with Carlotta Gall.

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