General Dec 6, 2015 | 5:52 PMby Colin McGourty

Ilyumzhinov steps down from role as FIDE President

After 20 years as the World Chess Federation (FIDE) President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov today withdrew from “any legal, financial and business operations of FIDE”. Deputy President Georgios Makropoulos will take over as acting president while Ilyumzhinov fights to get himself removed from the US Treasury Sanctions list over alleged transactions with Syria.

Kirsan Ilyumzhinov spent 17 years as President of the Republic of Kalmykia and has now spent 20 years as FIDE President - is that term now coming to an end? | photo: Russian Chess Federation

Ilyumzhinov steps down

When the US announced sanctions against Kirsan Ilyumzhinov on 25th November, the FIDE President defiantly claimed it would be business as usual and he would keep an appointment to visit New York and other US cities in the coming week. To no-one’s great surprise, he never took that risk, and now at a hastily-arranged FIDE Presidential Board meeting in Athens today he offered to step down, temporarily, from his position as president. That was first revealed in a tweet by his personal assistant Berik Balgabaev:

“Meeting of the FIDE Presidential Board. The FIDE President offers to temporarily suspend his powers until the following Presidential Board”.

That was immediately picked up by a large section of the Russian media, and a statement on the FIDE website soon followed:

Athens, 6 December 2015

Following the announcement by the US Department of the Treasury that the US levied sanctions against Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, Russian citizen and FIDE President, Mr. Ilyumzhinov has informed the Presidential Board that he will withdraw from any legal, financial and business operations of FIDE until such time as Mr. Ilyumzhinov is removed from the Office of Foreign Assets Control sanction list.

Mr. Ilyumzhinov advised that he has initiated legal procedures in the US aiming to request additional information and reverse restrictive measures put by the US Department of the Treasury. During the next Presidential Board meeting, Mr. Ilyumzhinov will update the Board as to the progress of the legal procedures.

Mr. Ilyumzhinov’s decision to withdraw from any legal, financial and business operations of FIDE is to enable him to concentrate on clearing the situation with the US Department of the Treasury.

Until further notice, under section A.9.5 of the FIDE Statutes, if the President: “duly authorises, then he can be represented by the Deputy President who shall exercise the powers of the President. The Deputy President can thus represent FIDE officially and can solely sign for FIDE.” Therefore Mr. Makropoulos will now be exercising these powers and representing FIDE officially.

Nigel Freeman
FIDE Executive Director     

Note that in the official statement it doesn’t say that Ilyumzhinov has withdrawn only until the next Presidential Board – held four times a year – but until sanctions are removed, which may or may not happen.

Ilyumzhinov was soon quoted by Russia’s INTERFAX news agency, where he suggests the limitations to his role only apply to the USA:

I remain FIDE President, but on my request the Presidential Board has limited my authority in the financial area of activities organised on US territory. At the next Presidential Board I will explain how my case is going regarding the sanctions introduced against me by the US.

There was some typical Ilyumzhinov showmanship:

Today at the Presidential Board we also gave a gift to the USA: FIDE will declare 2016 the Year of US Chess. Next year in the USA we’ll hold the Men’s World Championship match, the World Rapid Championship and also an international children’s tournament.

Let’s take a look at some of the background to today’s decision.

An untenable position

It of course made Kirsan Ilyumzhinov’s position difficult that FIDE was planning to hold major events in the US in the near future, but his bigger problem was perhaps that he found himself at the focal point of a major international dispute. After the shooting down of a Russian jet by Turkey, Russian President Vladimir Putin accused Turkey of buying oil from ISIS. 

Vladimir Putin appeared at a number of chess events in the last couple of years (here the White Rook/Boat children's tournament in Sochi) - will current events encourage him to keep his distance? | photo: Russian Chess Federation

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan responded with similar accusations against Russia, and named Ilyumzhinov personally (as reported here by the UK’s Independent newspaper):

Mr Erdogan hit back by asking Russia to comment on the American government’s recent black-listing of Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, the World Chess Federation President, who stands accused of “materially assisting and acting for or on behalf of the Government of Syria”.

Ilyumzhinov’s problems are far from limited to chess, since he combines his role as FIDE President with business activities. For instance, in early September it was announced that his investment fund Credit Mediterranee SA had acquired a more than 70% stake in TogliattiAzot, a major Russian chemical company valued at over $1 billion. A press release by the company two days after the sanctions announcement stated that the deal had been cancelled:

It was agreed that Mr Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, the owner of Credit Mediterranee SA fund, would step down as a president of Corporation Togliattiazot CJSC.

Of course there may have been no connection, but it illustrates the scale of potential issues Ilyumzhinov may have to deal with if his US assets are frozen and he’s unable to use the US banking system. The chess world may not be his highest priority.  

How will FIDE change?

Not a lot, is the quick answer! Georgios Makropoulos, who became Greek Chess Federation President 33 years ago, has been at the heart of FIDE decision-making for even longer than Ilyumzhinov. In fact, he’s long been considered the man in day-to-day control of the organisation, while Ilyumzhinov plays a more ceremonial role. He was quoted by RSport:

In connection with my being given the active duties of FIDE President I’d like to declare that no changes will take place in our organisation. We have a clear calendar of events that we will follow. I hope for understanding and the support of all national federations.

Makropoulos suddenly has the lead role in the organisation he's devoted the last 30 years to | photo: FIDE

Parallels with FIFA

It’s impossible to read about the President of FIDE stepping down amid US pressure without recalling FIFA President Sepp Blatter’s fall from grace. Blatter, who spent 17 years as FIFA President, initially offered to resign, but was later suspended and is now facing criminal charges over corruption. US authorities continue to widen their net and recently arrested a number of FIFA Vice Presidents over suspected bribery.

It sounds similar, but we should remember that while Kirsan Ilyumzhinov is on the sanctions list, he isn’t facing any criminal charges, and the sanctions involve alleged dealings with no direct relation to chess. There’s also no investigation into FIDE that we know of, so while Ilyumzhinov’s chances of a return to office may seem slim – the US is unlikely to alter their decision and suing the US for $50 billion in moral damages (plus an apology) sounds optimistic... – there’s no reason to expect a domino effect with other chess officials losing their posts.

What does remain to be seen, though, is whether next year’s World Championship match will indeed take place in the US. We’ll keep you informed of any developments!       

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