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General Nov 25, 2015 | 10:19 PMby Colin McGourty

Ilyumzhinov hit by US sanctions over Syria

Only yesterday Kirsan Ilyumzhinov celebrated the 20th anniversary of becoming President of the World Chess Federation (FIDE). Today there was less to celebrate, as he found himself on the US Treasury Sanctions List for providing support to the Government of Syria, meaning any assets he holds in the United States will be frozen and US citizens are restricted in the dealings they can have with him. Ilyumzhinov calls it a “provocation”, noting that on Sunday he’s planning to go to America to sign a contract for the 2016 World Chess Championship match.

FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov met Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on 29th April 2012 | photo: FIDE


This isn’t the first time 53-year-old Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, who spent 17 years as the President of the Russian Republic of Kalmykia, has found himself at the focal point of world events. In 2003 he visited Saddam Hussein in the run-up to the Iraq War, while in 2011 he was one of the last foreign guests to visit Colonel Gaddafi, posing for a photo opportunity playing a game of chess while Libya was under bombardment by American and other allied forces. 

Then in 2012 he was in Syria to meet Assad, at a time when a ceasefire was under discussion for an armed conflict that had already claimed up to 10,000 lives. The report of the encounter on the FIDE website focused on chess:

As Mr. Ilyumzhinov noted, on the 29th April he had a three-hour talk with the President of Syria Bachar Assad in Damascus. Mr. Assad underlined during the discussion, that he tasked the Syrian Ministry of Education to sign an Agreement to join the "Chess in Schools" project with the World Chess Federation.

Some have doubted the purpose of such visits. The 13th World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov recently suggested in an interview that Ilyumzhinov was “a trusted man”, carrying out the Kremlin and specifically Vladimir Putin’s orders around the world. That article provoked a furious response on the FIDE website, including the memorable put-down, “Garry is a great player and a better liar!”

US sanctions

Then today, just when the world media was focussed on the aftermath of the shooting down of a Russian jet on the Syrian-Turkish border, a bolt from the blue – the FIDE President has been sanctioned by the US Treasury. The official press release starts:

In response to continuing violence by the Assad regime against its citizens, the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) today designated four individuals and six entities providing support to the Government of Syria pursuant to Executive Order (E.O.) 13582, including a middleman for oil purchases by the Syrian regime from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).  As a result of today’s action, all assets of those designated that are in the United States or that are in the control of U.S. persons are frozen, and U.S. persons are generally prohibited from engaging in transactions with them.

The section of the press release devoted to Ilyumzhinov pulls no punches, even bringing up the murder of the journalist Larisa Yudina:

Kirsan Ilyumzhinov was designated today for materially assisting and acting for or on behalf of the Government of Syria, Central Bank of Syria, Adib Mayaleh, and Batoul Rida.  Ilyumzhinov is a wealthy Russian businessman, former president of the Russian Republic of Kalmykia, and long-time World Chess Federation president.  He is linked to financial transactions involving Khuri-associated companies as early as 1997 and owns or controls the Russian Financial Alliance Bank, along with Khuri.  An advisor to Ilyumzhinov, then-President of Kalmykia, was convicted in Russia in 1999 for the murder of an opposition journalist who reportedly was investigating an offshore business registration mechanism in Kalmykia tied to Ilyumzhinov.  Russian authorities subsequently closed the offshore business registration mechanism after concluding that it was being used for illegal purposes.

OFAC designated Russian Financial Alliance Bank (RFA Bank) today for being owned or controlled by Khuri and Ilyumzhinov.  Khuri is the Chairman of the Board of Directors of RFA Bank, and Ilyumzhinov is a major shareholder of RFA Bank and former Chairman of the Board of Directors of RFA Bank.  At the time of his Chairmanship, Ilyumzhinov reportedly brought in his own representatives to the bank.

Ilyumzhinov responds

Ilyumzhinov was quick to respond with an appearance on the TV Channel “Russia 24”. The Russian Chess Federation quotes him as describing the sanctions as a “provocation”. He continued:

On Sunday I have a visit to the USA when there are going to be negotiations and the signing of a contract for the holding of the World Chess Championship in November next year, in New York. The fact that they’ve put me on the list – we’ll look into that. I’ll go to the Treasury and ask what complaints they have about me, what questions. There are no connections. I was in Syria two years ago, officially. We held a children’s tournament there and I met with the country’s leadership. There are no commercial relationships or economic ties.

Ilyumzhinov told RIA News that he’s afraid neither of the sanctions nor of visiting America:

I don’t think this will have any effect on my work. As for the US Treasury, they're freezing accounts abroad, but I don’t have any foreign accounts, or apartments, yachts – there’s nothing. I was in the US just recently.

Ilyumzhinov now shows up on a search of the US Treasury's Sanctions List

He claims not to be worried about any problems with the US security services:

Let them check – I’ve never done anything against the USA, I’ve never stolen money from them, I’ve never sold any weapons anywhere, my activity is open and we’re not afraid of anything.

RIA notes that Ilyumzhinov will be in the US on Monday for negotiations on where to hold the World Championship, with three possible venues: Los Angeles, San Francisco or New York:

If they have any questions then I’m ready to answer them. I’m ready to meet in New York or Washington with representatives of the US Treasury. I’m not planning to cancel my trip. Over the course of a year I visit around one hundred countries. Now I’m in Italy and in the near future I have trips to Turkey, Israel, Switzerland and Great Britain. As FIDE President I keep working the way I’ve been working.

Business as usual?

So what impact will the sanctions have on chess? Well, in terms of publicity they seem unlikely to benefit the image of the game, to put it mildly. The optimistic move to position FIDE as a well-run international organisation in contrast to FIFA, where President Sepp Blatter is under investigation by the US authorities, has been dealt a blow.

Just one of the many, many stories appearing about the new sanctions - with the chess angle highlighted | screenshot: Yahoo News

The more critical question, perhaps, revolves around finance. The days have long since passed when Ilyumzhinov boasted that he was personally paying for big chess events, but it remains to be seen if companies that are based or operate in the US – meaning almost all big corporations – can still deal with FIDE despite sanctions on the President of the organisation.

Russian model and philanthropist Natalia Vodianova, Gennady Timchenko and Kirsan Ilyumzhinov in the Louvre, where half of the 2013 Alekhine Memorial was held | photo: FIDE

It should be noted, though, that Ilyumzhinov is far from the first Russian chess organiser to have sanctions imposed on him. Krasnodar Governor Alexander Tkachev was announced as the sponsor of the 2014 Carlsen-Anand World Championship match in Sochi before being sanctioned by the EU for his role in Russia taking control of the Crimea. The match went ahead as planned.

Gennady Timchenko, who Forbes rank as the 9th richest man in Russia with a fortune of $11.9 billion, was one of the sponsors of the 2012 Anand-Gelfand World Championship match and the Alekhine Memorial supertournament. In 2014 he was also sanctioned by the US government over the situation in Ukraine. 

The Russian Chess Federation points out that in the run-up to the last FIDE Presidential election Garry Kasparov predicted sanctions for another billionaire - their President, Andrey Filatov. That hasn’t come to pass.

Kirsan Ilyumzhinov and Andrey Filatov at the opening of the recent World Rapid and Blitz Championship in Berlin | photo: Clemens Bilan/Sebastian Reuter,

Curiously, it doesn’t seem to be only a one-way issue. The Executive Board Minutes for the September FIDE Conference contain the following paragraph in the discussion of the 2016 Candidates Tournament (it was later decided to hold the event in Moscow):

Mr. Makropoulos said Mr. Merenzon of Agon had planned to be here but had to cancel the last moment. The organisers cancelled his visa and he is unable to come. He had a meeting today with former President of the Russian Chess Federation, Vice-Prime Minister of Russia A. Dvorkovich, because we have a serious problem that there is a decision in Russia that Russian sponsors cannot sponsor any more events outside of Russia. And several FIDE events have Russian sponsors now. Russian Federation is trying to help Agon.

Ilya Merenzon is in charge of organising both the Candidates Tournament and then the 2016 World Chess Championship match between the winner and Magnus Carlsen. Will it still go ahead in the US as planned? We’ll keep you updated here at chess24.

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