Outrage at the murder has been expressed all over the world, in newspapers ranging from the International Herald Tribune to El Pais, The Guardian and The Times. In Russia, where in most regions freedom of speech is already taken for granted, the murder has been called a political contract killing and Ilyumzhinov has been quizzed about his involvement on television. His response was to amaze the interviewer by announcing his intention to stand for president of Russia in the year 2000.
GM Murray Chandler, editor-in-chief of BCM, refused to publish this article because, "it has nothing to do with chess". Twice in the last two months I have been instructed by the BCF to remove articles critical of Ilyumzhinov from ChessMoves (which I edit) because the BCF is affiliated to FIDE and cannot express dissent in its official organ. In this month's New in Chess I am calling for a mass boycott of the Olympiad - at least, I hope that this will appear in a letter to the editor alongside the article about my trip to Kalmykia - and on June 20 I attended a BCF Management Board meeting where my proposal that the England teams should boycott the Olympiad was discussed.
In the process of sounding out opinion before the meeting, I made some depressing discoveries. Several members of the Management Board said they knew already that Ilyumzhinov was a repressive dictator and so the murder didn't really change much. I was told the story of Ignatius Leong, the FIDE official who fled Armenia in 1996 after opposing Ilyumzhinov at the FIDE Congress and receiving threats. When David Jarrett stood for treasurer on Ilyumzhinov's ticket, Stewart Reuben asked him if he felt safe, taking into account the fact that his wife is Russian. Jarrett replied that he did. Nevertheless, on the two occasions when I have questioned Jarrett by telephone about FIDE finances, I have received nothing but hostility, and not a single fact about the source of all the money Ilyumzhinov is pouring into FIDE.
At the Management Board meeting, the BCF's International Director David Sedgwick said he had "very grave doubts" about Ilyumzhinov in 1996. But Ilyumzhinov "has been more successful than I expected at that time and less dictatorial within FIDE." If the Olympiad goes ahead as planned, in September, the FIDE Congress and the election for FIDE president will take place during the event. Each federation has one vote, and the BCF's delegate is Gerry Walsh. BCF Chairman Stewart Reuben will also be present, as he is being paid by FIDE to be on the pairings committee for the Olympiad. Although Walsh is supposed to be representing the BCF, in practice it will be up to him and Reuben to decide who to vote for - if there is a choice at all.
After sitting through an excruciatingly tedious Management Board meeting from 11 am to 5 pm, the point on the agenda regarding the Olympiad was finally reached. A few days previously, I had spent some time discussing the issues by e-mail with Robin Mackley, the BCF's Publicity Director, but this time was wasted because Mackley had already gone home at 4 pm. On Monday, June 15, I sent a letter to all 20 members of the Management Board explaining my reasons for requesting a boycott, and at some point in that week, David Sedgwick sent out a response. However, I was not allowed to see it - it was marked 'confidential' - and in fact Sedgwick wanted the entire discussion to be confidential, i.e. without my presence.
Fortunately, Tony Suttill, Director of Management Services (who knows me because he is responsible for ChessMoves), asked that I should remain in the room and this was accepted by the Board. I was never allowed to see Sedgwick's written response to my letter, but the gist of it was that he did not support my call for a boycott. When I spoke to him on the phone on June 19, he made it clear that he was unsympathetic and seemed irritated that his notification of selected players had been held up by my proposal. His public announcement of the teams for the Olympiad, which starts at the end of September, has been set back by about a week.
IM Susan Lalic is certain to be selected for the women's team. Even before notification, she had already cancelled all her coaching commitments so that she could play. "It's my livelihood," she told me on June 19. "I will make statements and give money to poor people in Kalmykia, but I'm still going." She has good reason to be pragmatic. In the early '90s she boycotted the women's world championship interzonal in Serbia in protest at the war with Croatia (her husband, GM Bogdan Lalic, is Croatian). Susan was hoping that others would follow her example, but, instead, the BCF simply sent Sheila Jackson in her place. So Susan is now disillusioned about the effectiveness of making a political stand, and, having seen how the BCF works, I can hardly blame her.
Susan is not at all happy about playing in Elista, the Kalmyk capital. "Every player would agree the Olympiad should be somewhere else," she said. "It's the last place on earth I'd want it to be. I am surprised that the Olympiad can be held in a most inaccessible place and recent political disturbances make it even more incredible that the federations allowed the Olympiad to be in such a ridiculous location. I wish to have it on record for the future that a civilised and democratic country is necessary to draw all the top teams and make the event credible and safe."
To make things easier for the BCF and the players, I recommended that the BCF should call for the Olympiad to be moved to another venue, such as St Petersburg, instead of being cancelled altogether. Then there would be more chance of holding a fair election for FIDE president and no insinuation that the chess world is utterly indifferent to and immune from politics. My true belief is that in the wake of the murder, the Olympiad will not go ahead in Elista. Ilyumzhinov has been publicly discredited and the Russian government is out to get him. He might be arrested in the next few months, or he might fly away in his private jet. Most likely, the Russian government will not provide the necessary funding for the completion of City Chess, the Olympic village.
In that case, why bother to call for a boycott? I think it would be a disgrace if the chess world stands by Ilyumzhinov to the bitter end. When he finally goes, it will be due to his own decision or the action of the Russian government. The chess world is according him the status and credibility that he craves, and shows no sign of withdrawing this at the present moment. "It has been said that FIDE would have been bankrupt if it weren't for Ilyumzhinov," Stewart Reuben told me. The fact that the millions of dollars Ilyumzhinov has brought to FIDE are of unknown origin doesn't seem to matter. And this money will disappear as suddenly as it appeared.
If the Olympiad does collapse, there might not be time to find an alternative venue. This is why the best option is to call for a change now. In the worst case scenario, which has to be taken into account, the Olympiad will go ahead in Elista. This would be utterly wrong. From my own impressions of the place and from reading a huge pile of articles in the past two weeks, I shall explain why.
I visited Elista in the first week of May to report for New in Chess on preparations for the Olympiad. I had no preconceptions at the time - in fact, I had very little information. I imagined that Kalmykia was mountainous, like the neighbouring republic of Chechnya, but I soon found out that it consists almost entirely of barren steppe. I had read Ilyumzhinov's autobiography, The President's Crown of Thorns, but his activities in FIDE were left to the last few pages and his business interests from the time when he stopped working for a Russian-Japanese joint venture were hardly touched on.
My assumption that the Kalmyk population would be fanatical about chess turned out to be very far from the truth. Ilyumzhinov has made chess compulsory in schools, but the republic has yet to produce a GM. A teacher of English who I spoke to gave me her views on chess and Ilyumzhinov very reluctantly. "Some people must be fond of music, some of ballet, some of art - it's up to the people. We mustn't force ... [long pause] maybe the future will show who is right." A young woman studying English at Elista University told me, "It is very bad when a president has no opposites. He must have, he must know his disadvantages. He doesn't want people to know how he gets his money, his power, and what does he do ... If you read our local newspapers, you will not find any article against him, and one of our newspapers is in Volgograd because this newspaper is opposite against him. Sovietskaya Kalmykia." That is the newspaper which Larisa Yudina edited.
When I was about to leave, the same student gave me a folded piece of paper and asked me not to show anyone in Elista, but to read it on the plane. It was an article protesting that Ilyumzhinov was devoting all the republic's resources to chess and to his own glory, whilst doing nothing for the people themselves. The roads in Elista are full of potholes, the airport building is a pile of rubble and hot water is only available sporadically. The government's slogan is "step by step" - these things can't be fixed overnight. But Ilyumzhinov has been in power since 1993. And City Chess is being built at breakneck speed, not "step by step".
Chess federations are relying on FIDE for information about the Olympiad, but FIDE information comes from Ilyumzhinov, and Ilyumzhinov's government tells a pack of lies. Igor Shalkhakov, the head of the president's administration, told me there was no such paper as Sovietskaya Kalmykia: "How can there be, we have no Soviet Union." According to him, there is no crime in Kalmykia and the airport has "international status". Chess federations will probably have to charter planes for their teams, but there are no guarantees that the runway will be long enough for them to land on. They could fly to a larger airport, such as Volgograd, but that's what former women's world champion Maya Chiburdanidze did - and she was seriously injured in a car crash on the road to Elista.
Ilyumzhinov himself is an admirer of Saddam Hussein. I interviewed Ilyumzhinov, and he proudly showed me photographs of his meeting with Saddam in Iraq. Ilyumzhinov knows the techniques of dictators very well. When someone requests a meeting with him, he makes them wait for days, without indicating when the meeting might take place. Eventually he summons them at 3 or 4 am, when they are at their weakest. This happened to David Jarrett, when he agreed to stand for treasurer.
I brought a copy of Sovietskaya Kalmykia back home with me, but I didn't read it all at first. I had been asked to write about chess, so I ignored the political content and only drew attention to a few paragraphs about the funding of City Chess, which emphasised that the Russian government had not received the relevant application documents from Ilyumzhinov, who claims that all the money will come from federal funds.
When I heard about Yudina's murder, I immediately read her article. It was called, 'Psychiatry is used in Kalmykia for non-medicinal purposes.' She told the story of a group of hunger-striking women who were protesting at not having enough money to feed their children. She interviewed Kalmykia's chief psychiatrist, who forcibly 'treated' the leader of the hunger strikers. The psychiatrist claimed that a hunger strike was an "inadequate reaction" to such a trivial problem. Following the murder, the same woman hunger striker arrived in Moscow, saying she believed she would be next on the hit list.
Ilyumzhinov banned a demonstration in protest at Yudina's murder. She was obviously a prominent thorn in his crown. Sovietskaya Kalmykia was forcibly evicted from its Elista offices in 1994 and Yudina complained that her staff were beaten up by security guards of a bank that has links to the Kalmyk government, according to The Moscow Times, the Russian capital's leading English-language paper. Ilyumzhinov once said he didn't understand people like Yudina, who wished to harm Kalmykia. The most damning evidence comes from Thomas de Waal of The Times, who actually interviewed Yudina. Following that, Ilyumzhinov said he was "disappointed" and refused to see de Waal, threatening to report him to his editor.
Yudina was not the unlucky victim of a mugging. She received a phone call from a man who offered to give her proof that money had been embezzled by the state company she was investigating. She got into a car to meet him, was driven away, and never seen alive again. These were Ilyumzhinov's comments, on Russia's TV6.
Ilyumzhinov - As head of the republic, I have been informed that investigations are under way and that suspects have been detained, practically on the day of the murder.
Interviewer - Who are they?
Ilyumzhinov - They are being investigated. They are from Kalmykia. Sergei Vaskin. I cannot remember the name of the second...
Interviewer - You did not know these people before?
Ilyumzhinov - I knew them. One was one of my public relations men, an aide, and the other was the same, a representative of the Republic of Kalmykia in the Volgograd Region.
Interviewer - Clearly the decision on whether these people were involved or not is a question for the investigators. Nonetheless, does it not seem strange to you, are you not ashamed that someone working as your public relations aide should be detained on suspicion of involvement in this murder?
Ilyumzhinov - I said at the start of the interview: I answer for everything which happens in our republic.
Later in the interview, Ilyumzhinov made his shock announcement that he wanted to stand for president.
Interviewer - You, the president of Kalmykia, now intend to stand for president of Russia?
Ilyumzhinov - Yes, I intend to, because having looked at the situation, at how several politicians, political demagogues, use one situation or another in the region, I decided to create my own electoral headquarters and start preparing for presidential elections.
Interviewer - Great. And who are you counting on?
Ilyumzhinov - Well, at the moment, I do not have a political party. Either I will create one which will get its support from the regions, from young people, or I will form an alliance with one of the parties, a democratic party, the Liberal Democratic Party, the Communist Party, the Agrarian Party.
Interviewer - The Communist Party?
Ilyumzhinov - Well, I was simply giving the range of parties with whom an alliance can be made.
Interviewer - Well, I do not think that your statement will impress the Kremlin too much, or that, given the situation with freedom of speech in your republic, that people used to reading the papers freely and watching television and who are not used to a country where the editors of opposition papers are killed will be impressed either.
Proof that the Russian government has given up on Ilyumzhinov comes from Belgian businessman Loie de Gruben. I met him outside Ilyumzhinov's office in Elista, where we were both waiting for a meeting. The businessman wanted to discuss the small matter of $750,000 he paid for wool, which Ilyumzhinov guaranteed to deliver, but which never arrived. After Yudina's murder I rang de Gruben in Antwerp. He had been urgently summoned to the Russian embassy in Brussels on June 15. There he was advised to sue Ilyumzhinov, and promised the full support of the Russian government.
"Business was very good in 1993-95, but then I saw how things were going wrong," de Gruben told me. "I have worked for Coca-Cola in Nigeria, Congo, the Ivory Coast - but I've never had the sort of problems I've had in Kalmykia. You cannot trust Ilyumzhinov. One day he says yes, another day he says no, and this is very dangerous. The Russians are sick of all those promises and stupid projects for his glory. They find City Chess really stupid, all this big construction, it's selfish. The Olympiad goes on for one or two months, then what will they do with it?"
I have tried to make it clear to the BCF that action should be taken regardless of a definite link between Ilyumzhinov and this murder. Lara Barnes, Director of Women's Chess, was absolutely right when she said in the debate that Ilyumzhinov is bringing the game into disrepute. She pointed out to the Management Board that de Waal's article in The Times was called 'The president who pawned his people'. There will be hundreds more such articles if the Olympiad goes ahead in Elista. The editor of Kingpin, Jonathan Manley, has written to me saying, "Following Larisa Yudina's murder and other disturbing reports emerging from Kalmykia, I do not believe that the BCF should send a team to the Olympiad in Elista. The ethical and practical reasons for boycotting the event are compelling and I shall be urging others within the chess community to join the protest."
The BCF didn't see it that way. Barnes initiated the discussion. She said, "There has been so much adverse publicity about this man, the president of FIDE and Kalmykia, I wondered why FIDE agreed to hold the Olympiad there in the first place." Stewart Reuben replied, "The decision was made in 1994, he was just a very presentable young man, we knew nothing about him." In Reuben's opinion, "it would be a terrible error to unilaterally boycott the Olympiad, for our relations with FIDE. Speaking as an arbiter, because comments are made about somebody in the newspaper, we don't assume those things to be true. Until judicial process has taken place, it's quite incorrect for us to make a judgement. Prime examples are the trials of O.J. Simpson and Louise Woodward."
As for safety, Reuben said that the chief arbiter for the Olympiad, Geurt Gijsen, thought that Elista would be safer than London. "[Gijsen] believes the runway is adequate as it is, but it is being built up." Alan Martin, a former BCF president, said there had been similar situations in the past. "The safety of players is paramount. We had the possibility of sending a junior to Medellin in Columbia and we decided this wasn't a good idea. We should consult the players, consult the foreign office, and consult our fellow chess federations. We've got sensible people in charge to deal with these things."
Neil Graham, Director of Congress Chess, said, "If we do send a team, players should be happy they're going and not be forced to go. The safety aspect doesn't look particularly satisfactory, but if people are happy, that's up to them. As for the political situation, we're not here to judge the regime a person runs, provided it's not deemed to be dangerous. As president of FIDE, that's another matter. We would have to think about whether we wished to vote for him. But the withdrawal of our team would be a futile gesture."
Graham added that he had spoken to prospective members of the Welsh team and that the Welsh Chess Union was considering very strongly what to do, because of the difficulties of getting to Elista. Sedgwick said that the Welsh Chess Union had received some advice which he was "not happy about". I also contacted the Welsh Chess Union and advised them not to go, so perhaps this was the advice he was talking about.
Gary Kenworthy, Director of Coaching, said, "It's a very dangerous dictatorship. We should really be asking, should this guy be head of FIDE? We should be talking to other federations." Sedgwick said he had asked Gerry Walsh to contact other federations but that Walsh had not succeeded in talking to any other delegates. Sedgwick hadn't yet got round to asking the Foreign Office their advice, but was definitely intending to. Furthermore, he believed Ilyumzhinov's popularity in the chess world was such that he would win the FIDE election even if the Congress was held in London. "I don't believe that if the BCF takes unilateral action other federations will quickly follow," he added.
Well, I do believe that someone should take responsibility, someone should take a lead, and that others will follow. I was given a fair opportunity to have my say at the Management Board meeting and I voiced some of the arguments contained in this article. However, I failed to persuade the Board. In a vote on Sedgwick's proposal not to boycott the Olympiad, six people were in favour and 10 abstained, with no votes against. This is not exactly convincing. It simply means that no one had the courage to do anything. I am continuing with my campaign - I will be writing to all the selected England players and urging them not to go to Elista. I will be sending a press release to chess journalists and other journalists expressing my disappointment with the Board's decision, and I will be contacting other federations to find out what they think. At this moment I am ashamed to be a chess player.
Sarah Hurst is donating her fee for this article to Amnesty International.
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