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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Game of Chess -- and Politics

VedomostiKirsan Ilyumzhinov is facing one of the toughest political battles of his life.
In his republic of Kalmykia, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov has never allowed for much in the way of democratic opposition.

But on Friday the mercurial president could face his toughest political battle yet in an ostensibly free and fair election that could see him toppled from his throne -- not in the Russian republic but as head of the chess world.

Delegates from more than 150 national chess federations will cast their ballots Friday in Turin, Italy, to elect the president of the International Chess Federation, or FIDE, in the most serious challenge to Ilyumzhinov's presidency of that organization since he assumed the post 11 years ago.

Under his tenure, Ilyumzhinov has failed to secure stable corporate sponsorship for FIDE. Now, Dutch-born businessman and chess benefactor Bessel Kok is trying to defeat the incumbent, whom President Vladimir Putin re-appointed as president of Kalmykia in October.

Ilyumzhinov, who was first elected president the republic in 1993, has poured tens of millions of dollars into chess since becoming FIDE president in 1995. He has maintained the money was his own, but critics have accused him of dipping into the republic's coffers to fund his chess obsession, including the construction of his chess fantasy land, Chess City, a complex built in Elista, the capital of Kalmykia, to host the 1998 Chess Olympics.

The FIDE campaign has curious parallels with recent color revolutions in former Soviet republics, with some Russian commentators even suggesting that Western forces are conspiring to put one of their own at the helm.

Ilyumzhinov has faced repeated allegations of misuse of public money and being an authoritarian leader of the Buddhist republic.

Now he is being challenged by a Western candidate preaching transparency and economic reforms. Appropriately, Kok's team has selected orange as the color of its campaign.

"As the whole world is aware, orange represents the color of change," Kok's campaign web site states. "It has been successful in the Ukrainian campaign and more recently in Kenya."

The web site also notes that orange is the national color of the Netherlands, Kok's homeland.

The FIDE presidential race has been riddled with accusations, petty and serious, of conspiracy and corruption.

Sport-Express chess commentator Yury Vasilyev enigmatically accused one of his "favorite" grandmasters of belonging to a "fifth column" for backing Kok -- despite the unnamed chess player's local federation supporting Ilyumzhinov.

Vasilyev has penned several articles pushing Ilyumzhinov's reelection.

In an open letter posted on the web site, grandmaster Bachar Kuoatly accused FIDE deputy president Giorgios Makropoulos of squandering $1 million earmarked for the 1999 World Championship in Las Vegas. The money had been given to Makropoulos by Ilyumzhinov, Kuoatly said.

Russian newspapers, meanwhile, have hinted that Western chess federations are plotting to make sure the Russian loses.

In a Komsomolskaya Pravda article Tuesday, Alexei Gulf said the "NATO of chess" -- the United States, Western Europe and Turkey -- had Russia in its crosshairs. "Remember," Gulf wrote, "how our figure skater Irina Slutskaya was robbed [of a gold medal] at the Winter Olympics in the same city -- Turin."

As of Thursday evening, Ilyumzhinov said he had the support of 86 national federations while Kok said he had pledges from 41 federations, according to their campaign web sites.

International master David Levy, a former FIDE delegate from Scotland, said Thursday that Ilyumzhinov appeared to be heading for victory.

"It is well known that in FIDE elections many promises are broken, so no one can be really certain," Levy said. "But the people who are most genuinely in the know, those on the two election teams, paint a picture of a Kirsan victory. His guys are all smiles, while those I have seen today from the Bessel camp have an air of doom about them."

Australian grandmaster Ian Rogers said each candidate had 55 to 60 votes "in the bag," but that Latin American federations could tip the scale in Ilyumzhinov's favor.

The outcome of Friday's election is unlikely to affect Ilyumzhinov's political future, political analysts Nikolai Petrov and Alexei Makarkin said.