Kyiv, Ukraine – Russia’s war against Ukraine has permeated even the seemingly quiet world of chess, as a top Ukrainian guru seeks to overthrow the powerful Russian president of the International Chess Federation.
Representatives of 195 member states are set to vote on Sunday at a conference in Chennai, India, to choose the president of the federation, the world’s governing body of chess, which organizes all international tournaments, sets player ratings and decides where world and continental tournaments will be held. The current president, Arkady V. Dvorkovich, a former Russian deputy prime minister, faces three rivals, including Andrey Baryshpolets, a 31-year-old Ukrainian senior living in California.
His attempt is an example of many Ukrainians attempting to untangle their country’s deep ties with Russia, as well as to challenge Moscow’s global influence, after the invasion of Ukraine in February.
“Sure, the war was an incentive for me to fight for changes in FIDE,” Barishbulits said, using the French acronym for the Chess Federation is known.
“It’s a very opaque structure, and it was very dependent on Russian money and Russian sponsors,” said Barishbulits, an economist who immigrated to the United States in 2016. He said the Russian government is still using chess federation to show Russia influence on the cultural front.
Barishbulits noted that in 2020, the last year for which financial data is available, Russian state and private companies made more than 90% of all donations to FIDE, contributing more than 45% of the organization’s budget.
Chess has traditionally been intertwined with the Russian state and projection of its global power – a legacy of Soviet dominance over the sport it funded and sponsored. From the founding of the first World Chess Federation World Championship in 1948, until 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, Soviet players won every tournament 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 used to say that his close relationship with the Kremlin and Russian President Vladimir Putin was in the past.
In an interview, Dvorkovich said he “understands the reputational risks” arising from his previous association with the Russian state. Describing himself as “between two fires,” he was criticized both in Russia for refusing to support the war openly and abroad for his connections to the Kremlin.
In an online discussion with other candidates for the organization’s presidency in July, he described himself as “far from the Kremlin” and vowed to resign if he was sanctioned by the West. In the same month, the head of the Russian Chess Federation referred to Dvorkovich as “our candidate” and predicted that he would win easily.
Under the leadership of Dvorkovich, the Federation condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine and cut patronage relations with Russian-controlled companies. After the invasion, Russian players were able to compete in official international tournaments only under another country’s flag or a neutral FIDE flag.
But Dvorkovich echoed the Kremlin’s false claims that it was fighting fascism in Ukraine.
At the same time, he is generally well regarded for his leadership of FIDE, and remains popular among chess powers such as India and dozens of small national federations that rely on grants from a private FIDE development fund to operate.
“Compared to four years ago, today’s FIDE is very different,” said Milan Denek, editor-in-chief of British Chess magazine, referring to the changes he said Dvorkovic had made. “He is more respected inside and outside the chess world, his finances have improved and become more transparent,” he added, while acknowledging that the organization still needed more change.
Baryshpolets learned to play chess when he was six, and was competing in tournaments when he was eight. Speaking from his home in Los Angeles, he said his campaign platform included pushing for transparency in how tournament locations, many in Russia, are awarded.
“The big concern the unions see is that it’s not transparent and unclear what’s going on inside this black box, and why some of the decisions have been made as they are,” he said.
Baryshpolets ran a low-level campaign, meeting delegates in Chennai and boarding a regular shuttle to the venue. Each national federation has one vote in the secret ballot to elect the president, an unpaid position.
Of the countries that would not support him, it seems, is Ukraine: its union supported a different candidate. India appears to have sided behind Dvorkovic, both in the person of Viswanathan Anand, the former world champion working on the Russian ticket, and in gratitude to Dvorkovic for helping Dvorkovic land the relocated Chess Olympiad, a major event with 3,000 players and hundreds of delegates to Chennai.
The US Chess Federation said in a statement from CEO Carol Meyer that it has not decided on any return ticket and that it will wait to hear from its delegation after meeting all the candidates in Chennai.
Lev Allport, 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 was losing the support of major Russian donors, he believed it could be shaped by others. Emerging chess nations with deep pockets.
He said: “In the Arab world, for example, the UAE is a big sponsor of chess, and the Saudis have become big supporters.”
Allport 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 is likely to freeze, like the new Cold War,” he said. “And in such a situation it will be difficult to keep the chess world together.”
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