Interviews Jun 21, 2022 | 4:26 PMby Tarjei Svensen

Arkady Dvorkovich: 'I had pressure from both sides'

In an exclusive interview with chess24, FIDE President Arkady Dvorkovich speaks about the pressure he is facing at home in Russia, the criticism of his candidacy, his election campaign, the Candidates Tournament, Sergey Karjakin and Magnus Carlsen potentially giving up his World Championship title.

Arkady Dvorkovich was on a trip around the Americas and took the time to speak with chess24 at a luxury hotel in Bogota | photo: Tarjei J. Svensen

It has been a tough last three months for Arkady Dvorkovich, who for 10 years was the deputy of Dmitry Medvedev. Medvedev served as Russian President from 2008-2012, and then from 2012-2018 was Russian Prime Minister, with that last term including Russia's invasion of Ukraine in 2014. 

At the time Medvedev was often portrayed as the "liberal" alternative to Vladimir Putin, but during the current war Medvedev's public statements have been even more extreme than those of his boss.

Dvorkovich has faced criticism at home and in the chess world, with the criticism intensifying when he sent mixed signals about his stance on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He was quoted by US magazine Mother Jones as saying, “My thoughts are with Ukrainian civilians”.

The interview led to fierce criticism back home, with politicians calling it “a betrayal” and labelling him a “fifth columnist”, a term used for someone who secretly supports and helps the enemy.

Shortly afterwards he was quoted in Russian media:

But the main thing is that a solid peace and a more just order will finally be established on our planet, where there's no place for Nazism or the domination of some countries over others.

That's codified language for the Kremlin's pretense that Ukraine is a Nazi state that needs to be denazified — and by countries dominating others Dvorkovich is likely referring to the "West", not Russia.

The 50-year-old from Moscow has not given any interviews to Western or chess media since, with the exception of a brief interview with Norwegian broadcaster NRK, where he addressed the criticism.

As FIDE President I have to find a way to unite people without taking sides. I want to be truthful with myself and most people. I think I have found a good way to do that. As a Russian, that's the way I have to do it. I care about my country. I think there is a way to unite the world again.

Dvorkovich went on to call the situation in Ukraine “sad and tragic” and “one of the saddest moments in my life.”

“I had to make tough decisions and hard choices”

While Dvorkovich was on a rapid trip around the Americas, visiting Panama, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Colombia within the space of a few days, chess24 got to speak to the Russian 50-year-old in a luxury hotel in Bogota. He was there with an assistant, Grandmaster Viorel Bologan, who works for FIDE. The next day they had a meeting with the Colombian Minister of Sports before travelling to Madrid to attend the opening of the Candidates.

chess24 met FIDE president Arkady Dvorkovich at this luxury hotel in Bogota, Colombia, where he stayed for one night before switching hotels for a meeting with the Colombian Minister of Sports | photo: Tarjei J. Svensen

Asked how it's been to be a Russian FIDE President for the last month, he says:

“It was tough. I had to make tough decisions and hard choices. Not many people are happy about banning Russian teams, taking events from Russia and being without Russian sponsors. But in this case it's not about being happy, it's about reality.”

“Many people think it's unfortunate, but that's what we had to do and what I had to share. I had a lot of pressure from all sides, including for harsher steps against Russian players. But we thought that the rights of people had to be protected. Human rights and sportsmen rights. I think we took the right decision to let Russian players play under the FIDE flag.”

“I had pressure in Russia as well, about protecting more Russian interests. So I had pressure from both sides. It is difficult, but I am doing things right and what I believe in. It's my hope, and that of many other people around the world, that peace will come and that the situation will revert to stable.”

On Karjakin: “Sergey could be a bit more careful”

One case that came to his table was Sergey Karjakin's pro-Kremlin comments supporting the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In April, FIDE's Ethics Commission handed the 32-year-old a 6-month ban from chess, effectively taking away his spot in the Candidates Tournament. Dvorkovich says he was not involved with the decision, and says he merely supported referring it to the commission.

“I didn't push for any decision, but the fact that we redirected it to the Ethics Commission means that we felt that something is wrong. Let's put it this way. It doesn't mean we are against the right to freedom of speech. We do have that both globally and in any society... in most societies, I would say. But there are some limits that are set by the freedom of other people. I just thought that Sergey could be a bit more careful. You can have an opinion...”

He pauses for a bit, then continues:

Arkady Dvorkovich before the second half of the 2021 Candidates in Yekaterinburg, where Sergey Karjakin attended the press conference | photo: FIDE

“I think most people are in favour of their own country. It's normal. I love Russia personally. Nobody can take that away from me. But of course you should understand the feelings of other people and try to be careful.”

In April it was claimed by exiled Russian-Israeli oligarch Leonid Nevzlin, that a criminal case was being prepared against Dvorkovich for his statements and that he has fled Russia with his family. He denies the allegations and says he has no intention of leaving Russia.

“Completely fake news!” he says instantly. ”I was not under any arrest or any investigation.”

“1 out of 100 chance” of sanctions

He says he is not afraid to come under sanctions, as a number of Russian politicians, businessmen and oligarchs have since the war began.

“I am not too worried. There is a 1 out of 100 chance, yes. I would not estimate the chance as more than that. At some point it was higher, but based on what I know, all information and various sources, I would say 1 out of 100 now.”

Asked how it's possible to handle the pressure as a Russian FIDE President, he says: 

“It's the team that helps. It's people who gathered around us during the last four years. It's not just the management board, or people in the FIDE council, but many more from national federations. Players themselves. I would say I have normal support from all sides. Of course there are some people who criticize for mistakes made during this period. During the last three months I have met hundreds of people, and some of them have had criticsm or ideas on how to correct regulations, but that's normal. The team is helping me to make decisions.”

He insists he does not succumb to pressure from inside Russia to make pro-Russian decisions. “I have no problems with that.” He was criticised back home when he declared Russia and India joint winners of last year's Online Chess Olympiad.

“People in Russia believed that Russia won this Olympiad. I thought that it would be a complete disaster for me to take one side. There is no complete evidence or 100% proof that the Indian side were guilty of that situation. If it was clear that it was their mistake with their equipment, I would make another decision,” he says.

Dvorkovich also denies accusations that he is close to the Kremlin regime.

Arkady Dvorkovich during a meeting with Vladimir Putin in 2016 | photo: Alexei Nikolsky, via AP

“I was before 2018, but not after that. I can call, but I don't use it. I only used it for the Chess Olympiad when it was scheduled for Moscow, and the World Cup in Sochi. But besides that, no. It's just false.“

“What was wrong with Russian sponsors?“

Asked about the amount of Russian sponsors in his period as president, Dvorkovich insists they have kept their promise to reduce them.

“What was wrong with Russian sponsors? Was it prohibited before? Now we have closed contracts. We made the step because we thought it was the right thing to do. I said in 2018 that most sponsors will be Russian, but year-by-year we would reduce the share. And that was a strategy we followed. I was completely open about it. FIDE was basically without money and left without funds at that time. And it was left without its key asset, the World Championship rights.”

He refers to the controversial contract with World Chess, formerly known as Agon, the company which organised the World Championship until 2018 and the FIDE Grand Prix series until 2021.

“We took it back from this private company. We saved FIDE initially with Russian money, but then we started to accumulate resources and sponsors from other parts of the world. We openly followed the strategy and we succeeded with that. It's as simple as that.”

Dvorkovich says he sees huge potential to attract global companies, referring to the online chess boom and mentioning Netflix hit series The Queen's Gambit.

Arkady Dvorkovich flew from Colombia to Madrid on June 15, making it to the opening of the Candidates Tournament. Here he is teamed with Ukrainian-Spanish IM Olga Aleksandrova | photo: FIDE

“We have all the chances to have long-term partnerships with companies with a high reputation. We had chances even after the previous election, but the pandemic was really a big hit.”

Dvorkovich is running for his second term as FIDE President, having announced his campaign with Indian great Viswanathan Anand on the ticket in March.

The election, which takes place during the Chess Olympiad in Chennai in the beginning of August, will see the team face three opponents:

  • GM Andrey Baryshpolets and GM Peter-Heine Nielsen
  • Inalbek Cheripov and Lewis Ncube
  • GM Bachar Kouatly and Ian Wilkinson

Dvorkovich expresses confidence that his team will be reelected in August. Baryshpolets, who is a Ukrainian living in the USA, could be his most dangerous opponent. Along with Nielsen, also a strong critic of Dvorkovich, they secured federation support from all the required continents, with South Sudan, Curacao, New Zealand, England, Lithuania, Netherlands and Norway.

Baryshpolets has called for the resignation of Dvorkovich and has gathered 1300 signatures for a petition stating that: “...the Russian Federation has been using FIDE as a soft power to whiten its reputation. It continues to do so amid its military aggression against Ukraine.”

Due to its questionable reputation, FIDE has been struggling to attract sponsors and partners and has been financed mostly by the state-owned and private Russian companies. Moreover, FIDE keeps its accounts in Russian banks that are already under sanctions. Namely, Sberbank, Otkrytie bank and Gazprombank. 

By this petition, we demand resignation of Arkady Dvorkovich and cutting all FIDE financial and political ties with the aggressor country, the Russian Federation. 

The Ukrainian, English and German Chess Federations also issued similar statements urging Dvorkovich to step aside.

Responding to the calls for his resignation, Dvorkovich points out that most of his team come from different countries around the world. “It's an international team that works professionally,“ he says.

“There is no huge personal factor here“

Dvorkovich admits that some sponsors are reluctant to deal with him as a Russian FIDE President.

“But that's normal. I have no problems with that since we have a marketing team that does it anyway. They achieve results. There is no huge personal factor here. Talking about me running for presidency, it's not about me. It's about the team and keeping it bigger, better and going forward. If I would not run, the team would, if not disappear, be destroyed. A new team would have to start completely from scratch. That's a huge risk for FIDE. I am not saying it's impossible, anything is possible in this world, but I think FIDE would be worse with losing this kind of team.“

Indian 5-time World Champion Viswanathan Anand will join Arkady Dvorkovich on his ticket for his reelection | photo: FIDE

He says he understands the criticism about having a Russian heading FIDE for 27 years.

“We invited many people from around the world to the team and made it international. That makes a difference. I think people now see that we are putting on tournaments in different parts of the world. It's not like we have 8 out of 10 tournaments in Russia anymore. It's all spread and it's completely different.”

The former Russian Deputy Prime Minister talks about his many working trips around the world that secured key events, such as the Chess Olympiad's move from Russia to India. Abu Dhabi is one candidate to host this year's World Rapid and Blitz, while Norway have expressed interest for next year. The 2024 Chess Olympiad will be hosted in Budapest, Hungary, while Uzbekistan made a bid for 2026. Dvorkovich also says FIDE now have hosts for the Women's Grand Prix events. 

“It's been really hard to find organisers. We secured Kazakshtan, India and most likely Poland. Good places for women's events.“

[Editors note: Dvorkovich later reached out to say Munich, Germany is also a venue for these events.]

The FIDE President reveals that they are close to signing a contract with the Grand Chess Tour, that will replace the Grand Prix tournaments as a qualification to the Candidates.

Candidates is “more about psychological preparation than chess”

The Muscovite's father was Vladimir Dvorkovich, a renowned international arbiter in Russia. Besides being a chess politician, Arkady is also a big chess fan. He eagerly answers questions about the Candidates, and says he agree with other major experts who have Ding and Caruana as the big favourites.

“It's mostly about psychological preparation rather than chess itself. From a chess point of view, all of them are great players anyway. From what we have seen during the last few Candidates Tournaments anything can happen. The last one was a bit tricky, the longest in history with a one-year break. Ian was great and showed great consistency and played really well.”

He also mentions Nakamura, revealing he is a huge fan of the popular American. Dvorkovich points out that he was criticised for giving him a wild card for the FIDE Grand Prix series, but Nakamura delivered and managed to qualify for the Candidates.

Arkady Dvorkovich proved to be right with the decision to select Hikaru Nakamura as a wildcard for the FIDE Grand Prix: "I am really happy about it", he says | photo: World Chess

“I am really happy about it. People were pushing me in the right direction. Hikaru is a nice person to communicate with. He has a bright personality. He is proving this every day and is a very popular chess player and person. What he is doing is good for chess,” he says, referring to Hikaru's streaming channel with more than a million subscribers.

Asked about his reaction to Magnus Carlsen potentially dropping out of the World Championship match, Dvorkovich says:

“That doesn't mean it's his final decision. Of course I want him to play. But every man is a free person. It's his right anyway. For chess and the promotion of chess, another match would be wonderful, but I understand his emotions. Any year before the match he is really concentrated and focused. And it's hard work. I can understand he is done with all that stuff.”

What would it mean for chess if there's a World Championship without Magnus Carlsen?

“Well, it would mean we have a new champion. But we have big markets. We have the United States, India and China. Well, Russia is a bit out of it now because of the politics, but we also have Europe. These markets will boom if a player from that region will win. Interest will rise sharply. I will be happy with any outcome. Any of those markets is great for us. The US market is potentially the largest.”

After attending the opening of the Candidates, Dvorkovich went to New Delhi where FIDE held its inaugural Torch Relay ceremony this week, an event that was attended by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Controversy wasn't far away, however, with Arkady Dvorkovich's "ticket" accused of using the FIDE event to further their reelection campaign.

There's sure to be more controversy ahead before the FIDE Presidential election takes place on August 7th. 

See also: 

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