Ukrainian grandmaster offers to remove Russian head from world chess body

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KYIV, Ukraine – Russia’s war against Ukraine has penetrated even the seemingly staid world of chess, where a Ukrainian grandmaster aims to oust the powerful Russian president of the International Chess Federation.

Representatives from 195 member countries are scheduled to vote at a conference in Chennai, India on Sunday for the president of the federation, the governing body of the chess world, which governs all international championships, sets the player rankings and decides where global and continental championships will be held. . The current president, Arkady V. Dvorkovich, a former deputy prime minister of Russia, faces three challengers, including Andrii Baryshpolets, a 31-year-old Ukrainian grandmaster living in California.

His attempt is an illustration of the attempt by many Ukrainians to untangle their country’s deep ties to Russia, as well as to challenge Moscow’s global influence, after the invasion of Ukraine in February.

“Certainly, the war was an impetus for me to fight for changes in FIDE,” said Baryshpolets, using the French acronym by which the chess federation is commonly known.

“It’s a very opaque structure and it has relied heavily on Russian money and Russian sponsors,” said Mr Baryshpolets, an economist who immigrated to the United States in 2016. He said the Russian government was still using the chess federation to project Russian influence on the cultural front.

Mr Baryshpolets pointed out that in 2020, the last year for which financial statements are available, Russian state and private companies provided more than 90 percent of all donations to FIDE, representing more than 45 percent of the organization’s budget. .

Chess has traditionally been intertwined with the Russian state and a projection of its global power – a legacy of the Soviet domination of the sport that funded and nurtured it. From the founding of the International Chess Federation’s first world championship in 1948 until 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, Soviet players won every championship but one.

Dvorkovich, 50, was elected president four years ago, replacing eccentric Russian millionaire Kirsan N. Ilyumzhinov, whose scandal-ridden two-decade reign ended with his suspension by the federation’s ethics committee in 2018.

Dvorkovich has said his close relationship with the Kremlin and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia is a thing of the past.

In an interview, Mr Dvorkovich said he “understands the reputational risks” arising from his previous ties to the Russian state. He described himself as “between the two fires,” both in Russia for refusing to openly support the war and abroad because of his Kremlin ties.

In an online debate with other candidates for president of the organization in July, he described himself as “far from the Kremlin” and vowed to resign if he were ever placed under sanctions by the West. That same month, the head of the Russian Chess Federation called Mr. Dvorkovich “our candidate” and predicted that he would easily win.

Led by Mr Dvorkovich, the federation has condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine and severed key sponsorship ties with Russia-controlled companies. After the invasion, Russian players could only participate in official international tournaments under the flag of another country or the neutral FIDE flag.

However, Dvorkovich has echoed the Kremlin’s false claims that it is fighting fascism in Ukraine.

At the same time, he is generally well regarded for his leadership of FIDE, and he remains popular with chess powers like India and the dozens of small national federations that rely on grants from a special FIDE development fund.

“Compared to four years ago, FIDE is completely different today,” said Milan Dinic, the editor of British Chess Magazine, referring to the changes he said Mr Dvorkovich had made. “It is much more respected both inside and outside the chess world, and finances have improved and become more transparent,” he added, acknowledging that the organization still needed more change.

Al Lawrence, general manager of the US Chess Trust, a charity that provides chess scholarships to children and veterans, said that despite systems designed to strengthen institutional processes so that decision-making does not rest on a single leader, the FIDE president still has significant influence. on essential matters.

“Who’s president matters a lot,” said Mr. Lawrence, a former president of the US Chess Federation, speaking in a personal capacity. “Frankly, the federation is very closely linked to Russian influences at the moment.”

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That influence could serve wider Russian interests almost immediately. A day after the presidential election, the chess federation is expected to adopt a proposal to lift the ban on Russian teams in major championships. Chess, like most sports in the world, imposed a ban on Russian teams after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“We want our national team to return to the big stage,” said Andrei Filatov, the head of the Russian Chess Federation, said in July.

In the hometown of Mr. Baryshpolets, Kiev, chess players recently gathered in Shevchenko Park, where they placed plastic chess pieces on stone tables while waiting for partners.

Like the federation contender, almost all of them learned to play as young children.

“For us as chess players it’s not that important, but as citizens of Ukraine we would like a Ukrainian to be the head of the federation,” said Vadim Weisberger, 63, a businessman who was one of the players.

Others said they left the war behind when they sat down at the chessboard.

“This is the civilized world of chess,” said Serhiy Maiboroda, a retired police investigator. “Here we are talking about chess; we discuss politics in different places.”

Mr. Baryshpolets learned to play chess when he was 6, and he entered tournaments by the time he was 8. Speaking from his home in Los Angeles, he said his campaign platform was pushing, among other things, for transparency about how tournament venues are awarded, many of them in Russia.

“A major concern that federations also see is that it is not transparent and not clear what goes on in this black box, why some decisions were made the way they are,” he said. “There is little communication and explanation to the unions and the chess world.”

Mr Baryshpolets has been campaigning peacefully, meeting with delegates in Chennai and taking regular shuttles to the site. Each national federation has one vote in the secret ballot to elect the president, an unpaid position.

One country that will not support him, it seems, is Ukraine: the federation has supported another candidate. India, meanwhile, appears to have rallied behind Mr. Dvorkovich, both in the person of Viswanathan Anand, a former world champion running on the Russian’s ticket, and in its gratitude for Mr Dvorkovich’s assistance in landing the relocated Chess Olympiad. , a major event with 3,000 players and hundreds of delegates, to Chennai.

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The United States Chess Federation said in a statement from its executive director, Carol Meyer, that it had not decided which ticket to support and that it would wait to hear from its delegation after meeting all the candidates in Chennai. The US team has two players from Ukraine; one of them, Anna Zatonskikh, a resident of Mariupol, said that “it is wrong to have a Russian head of FIDE.”

Chess analysts said that if three people challenged Dvorkovich, it was possible they would split the opposition’s votes, reducing their chances of beating him. Others noted that a secret ballot gave voters room to back Dvorkovich even as their countries oppose the war in Ukraine and Russia in general.

“No matter what goes on behind the scenes,” said Peter Tamburro Jr., editor of American Chess Magazine.

“I wonder if we’ll get an election heavily influenced by the infusion of money in different places,” he added, pointing out that many of the federation’s member countries are smaller and less wealthy countries.

Lev Alburt, a former Ukrainian chess champion who defected to the United States in 1979 while playing for the Soviet Union, said that while the war meant the chess world lost support from major Russian donors, he believed it could be made up for by others. emerging chess countries with deep pockets.

“In the Arab world, for example,” he said, “the United Arab Emirates is a big sponsor of chess, and the Saudis are becoming big supporters.”

Mr Alburt said he saw the challenge to global chess as only a small part of the fallout from the war between Ukraine and Russia.

“The world in general will probably be frozen, like another Cold War,” he said. “And in such a situation it would be difficult to keep the chess world together.”

Jane Arraf reported from Kiev, Ukraine, and Ivan Nechepurenko from Tbilisi, Georgia.

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