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article imageGlobal chess body elects new head amid claims of Russian meddling

By Romain COLAS (AFP)     Oct 3, 2018 in World

The global chess federation is set to vote for a new president on Wednesday, replacing its veteran, highly controversial Russian chief, amid allegations of undue influence exerted by Moscow.

The race to head one of the world's largest sporting federations will see former Russian deputy prime minister Arkady Dvorkovich run against current World Chess Federation (FIDE) deputy president, Georgios Makropoulos, who is Greek, and British grandmaster Nigel Short.

The vote on Wednesday will be held in the Georgian resort city of Batumi.

Whatever the result, the election will bring to an end the more than two decades-long reign of Kirsan Ilyumzhinov as president of the body uniting the world's 188 national chess federations.

The eccentric former leader of a Russian region claimed to have encountered aliens during a colourful career at the federation's helm that began in 1995.

- Alleged pressure -

The Kremlin's preferred candidate to head the global body, Dvorkovich, 46, served as a deputy prime minister for six years under President Vladimir Putin although he lost his post in May.

Putin in July publicly predicted Dvorkovich would win and wished him success.

Dvorkovich's bid for the FIDE presidency has prompted accusations of Moscow's attempting to influence the vote.

ChessBase website reported on allegations that Putin asked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to press his country to back Dvorkovich's in return for hosting a championship, citing an email apparently from an Israeli foreign ministry official.

Dvorkovich's closest rival, 65-year-old Makropoulos, in turn referred Dvorkovich and his team to the FIDE ethics commission over alleged attempts to influence Serbia's vote with "gifts" and "fraudulent sponsorships."

Former Russian deputy prime minister Arkady Dvorkovich is the Kremlin's preferred candidate
Former Russian deputy prime minister Arkady Dvorkovich is the Kremlin's preferred candidate
Alexander Zemlianichenko, POOL/AFP/File

FIDE found Dvorkovich and his team not guilty due to insufficient evidence but excluded Serbia's delegate from the vote.

Short, who has positioned himself as an anti-corruption candidate, has allied himself with Dvorkovich and harshly criticised Makropoulos.

The English Chess Federation reacted angrily to this alliance, saying it would not back Short after Dvorkovich cast doubt on the British investigation into the Salisbury poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter.

"It's a complex electoral campaign with tough competition," Dvorkovich said last week, quoted by Interfax news agency.

"This won't be an easy fight," he added.

While not a top player, Dvorkovich has a strong personal interest in chess and his late father was an international chess arbiter.

Recently, he has involved himself in football, heading Russia's local organising committee for the World Cup earlier this year.

Dvorkovich has stressed his World Cup experience and dangled the promise of attracting new investment from a tie-up with world football body FIFA.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino in a video message Tuesday backed his "good friend" Dvorkovich and raised the possibility of "cooperating in certain areas."

- Russian domination -

Chess was crucial to the Soviet Union's national prestige during the Cold War heyday of Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov.

FIDE, which has modest projected income of 3.33 million euros ($3.84 million) for 2018, is one of the few sports federations where Russia has retained its traditionally strong role.

Outgoing FIDE president Kirsan Ilyumzhinov has been a  colourful  if controversial figure over two d...
Outgoing FIDE president Kirsan Ilyumzhinov has been a colourful, if controversial figure over two decades at the helm
Yuri KADOBNOV, AFP/File

The organisation that runs FIDE tournaments is based in Moscow and many of the top sponsors are Russian.

Makropoulos is meanwhile seen as close to outgoing president Ilyumzhinov, whose recent years at the helm have been dogged by his inclusion in a 2015 US sanctions list for alleged financial dealings with the Syrian government.

This led to Swiss bank UBS closing the federation's accounts in February, then in July FIDE suspended Ilyumzhinov for "ethics" breaches.

FIDE accused him of inflicting "serious reputational, operational and financial harm" and bringing it and "the game of chess into disrepute."

Ilyumzhinov, who once headed the Buddhist region of Kalmykia, told AFP in 2016 that he was living his "69th life." Most controversially, he claimed in 1997 to have been abducted by aliens in yellow spacesuits.

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