A man who would be king holds sway on the steppe Russian republic gets Chess Olympics amid political intrigue

October 04, 1998|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ELISTA, Russia -- Kirsan Ilyumzhinov roams his small domain like royalty, resplendent in a white Rolls Royce, his warrior-guards mounted behind him on a formidable Humvee, stirring clouds of dust as they race across the dry, empty steppe.

Little wonder that he worships chess. The name of the game comes from the Persian word for king, and Ilyumzhinov luxuriates in the notion. He uses the Mongol word to describe himself: the khan of Kalmykia. His is a modest kingdom. He is president of the ethnic republic of Kalmykia, a region of 350,000 mostly poor shepherds and farmers in southern Russia.

But a small board has never limited an ambitious chess player. With one calculated move after another, Ilyumzhinov has pulled off his biggest match yet, persuading 1,200 of the world's finest chess players to convene in this out-of-the-way provincial capital for the chess Olympics. And he has reached this moment, his opponents say, by plotting to steal and even to murder. The citizens of Kalmykia, they say, are the trampled pawns in a sinister game.

Human rights organizations, which have deep suspicions about the government here, urged chess players to boycott the tournament, largely unsuccessfully. A journalist opposed to Ilyumzhinov was murdered in June; questions have been raised about the propriety of spending money on a game when most people are desperately poor. Even the U.S. government has become involved, making a highly unusual decision to give two Kalmyk families sanctuary because they fear political persecution.

The story of Kirsan Ilyumzhinov could be told in many of Russia's regions, where local leaders rule supreme, neglected by a Moscow occupied with its own intrigues.

Ilyumzhinov, perhaps, stands apart because of his ardor for capitalism and for fame, and because of an odd twist of history. Kalmykians -- descended from the Mongols -- are the only native Buddhist population in Europe.

Ilyumzhinov first got attention playing chess, winning Kalmykia's chess championship at age 15, and he has longed for the limelight ever since.

He became a millionaire in the early post-Soviet days, president of Kalmykia in 1993 when he was 31 years old, and president of the World Chess Federation in 1995.

Today, despite opposition from Russian chess officials and even Boris N. Yeltsin, Ilyumzhinov is putting on the federation's 33rd Olympiad in this town of 100,000 people, where a little white dog trots onto the airstrip to greet the few arriving flights, cows graze and chickens wander in yards in the city limits and a teacher earns $35 a month.

Opponent murdered

"It's like a feast during the plague," says Gennady V. Yudin, whose wife, Larisa, was murdered June 7. The crusading editor of the opposition Sovietskaya Kalmykia newspaper, she was investigating Ilyumzhinov's financial affairs.

On that Sunday evening, Larisa, who was 52, left her fifth-floor apartment after receiving a phone call offering her incriminating documents. Larisa went out wearing her house slippers, telling Gennady she would have a quick meeting on the sidewalk.

She never came back. Her body, stabbed numerous times, was later found dumped in a pond not far away.

Four men have been arrested, two of them associated with Ilyumzhinov, as many people are in this small town. But no evidence has been produced linking the president to the murder. He was out of town when it happened.

Ilyumzhinov -- who handed out $100 bills in his first election campaign -- has been accused of so many improprieties in his career that he has published a 32-page comic book, written in English, to deflect the charges. "They call him extraordinary, unpredictable, phenomenal," the cover exclaims. "There are many rumors about him. But the truth is much more surprising "

Ilyumzhinov says he earned his money working for a Japanese company in Moscow in 1989 and parlayed that experience into setting up a host of companies from automobile sales to shipping. He calls himself a model of the new, young Russian capitalist.

Splendor and poverty

Despite Kalmykia's poverty, he built a shining Olympic village on 250 barren acres. The chess players are living in 87 Western-style stucco houses with smart tile roofs. They are playing chess in a five-story glass palace. Ilyumzhinov calls the village City Chess and gave it a special, city-statelike territorial status. It rises from the steppe at the edge of town as if from a faraway world.

To Ilyumzhinov's embarrassment, when the players arrived Sept. City Chess was not finished. Neither was the airport. Play was delayed for two days while the chess palace was turned from open-air pavilion into a building by workmen on the job 24 hours a day.

The project fell victim to Russia's economic and banking crisis. Ilyumzhinov said Kalmykia had lost $10 million when banks collapsed. In an interview last week, he denied charges that he had financed construction by diverting child welfare funds, but he was vague about where the money actually came from.

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