Ukrainian Grandmaster Offers To Overthrow Russia’s World Chess Body Leader

KYIV, Ukraine – Russia’s war on Ukraine has permeated even the seemingly calm world of chess, where a Ukrainian grandmaster tries to overthrow the powerful Russian president of the International Chess Federation.

Representatives of 195 Member States must vote on Sunday at a conference in Chennai, India, for the president of the federation, the world governing body for chess, which regulates all international championships, determines the ranking of players and decides where the world championships will be held and continentals. The current President, Arkady V. Dvorkovich, former Deputy Prime Minister of Russia, faces three challengersincluding Andrii Baryshpolets, a 31-year-old Ukrainian grandmaster living in California.

His candidacy is an illustration of the attempt by many Ukrainians to untangle their country’s deep ties to Russia, as well as to challenge Moscow’s global influence, following the invasion of Ukraine in February.

“Certainly, the war pushed me to fight for changes within FIDE,” Baryshpolets said, using the French acronym by which the chess federation is commonly known.

“It’s a very non-transparent structure, and it’s been heavily dependent on Russian money and Russian sponsors,” said Baryshpolets, an economist who emigrated to the United States in 2016. He said the Russian government was still using the chess federation as a project of Russian influence on the cultural front.

Mr. Baryshpolets pointed out that in 2020, the last year for which financial statements are available, Russian public and private companies provided over 90% of all donations to FIDE, contributing over 45% of the organization’s budget.

Chess has traditionally been closely tied to the Russian state and a projection of its global power – a legacy of Soviet domination over the sport it funded and nurtured. From the establishment of the first International Chess Federation World Championship in 1948 until 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, Soviet players won all but one championship.

Mr Dvorkovich, 50, was elected president four years ago, replacing the eccentric Russian millionaire Kirsan N. Ilyumzhinov, whose scandals have reign of two decades ended with his suspension by the federation’s ethics commission in 2018.

Mr Dvorkovich said his close relationship with the Kremlin and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin was a thing of the past.

In an interview, Mr Dvorkovich said he “understands the reputational risks” stemming from his previous affiliation with the Russian state. He described himself as “between the two fires”, criticized both in Russia for his refusal to openly support the war and abroad for his ties to the Kremlin.

In an online debate with other candidates for the organization’s presidency in July, he described himself as “far from the Kremlin” and pledged to resign if he was ever placed under sanctions by the West. That same month, the head of the Russian chess federation called Mr. Dvorkovich “our candidate” and predicted that he would win easily.

Under Mr. Dvorkovich’s leadership, the federation condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine and cut important sponsorship ties with Russian-controlled businesses. After the invasion, Russian players were only able to participate in official international tournaments under the flag of another country or under the neutral FIDE flag.

Mr Dvorkovich, however, echoed the Kremlin’s false claims that he is fighting fascism in Ukraine.

At the same time, he is generally well regarded for his leadership of FIDE, and he remains popular among chess powerhouses like India and the dozens of smaller national federations that depend on grants from a special development fund of the FIDE to work.

“Compared to four years ago, today’s FIDE is completely different,” said British Chess Magazine editor Milan Dinic, referring to the changes he said Mr Dvorkovich had made. . “He is much more respected both inside and outside the chess world, and his finances have improved and become more transparent,” he added, while acknowledging that the organization still needed more changes.

Al Lawrence, chief executive of the US Chess Trust, a charity that provides chess scholarships to children and veterans, said that despite systems being put in place to strengthen institutional processes so that decision-making does not revert not to a single leader, the President of FIDE still had considerable influence on essential matters.

“Who’s the president matters a lot,” said Mr. Lawrence, former director of the United States Chess Federation, speaking on a personal basis. “Frankly, at the moment the federation is very closely tied to Russian influences.”

This influence could serve broader Russian interests almost immediately. In the aftermath of the presidential election, the chess federation is expected to accept a proposal to lift the ban on Russian teams in major championships. Chess, like most world sports, imposed a ban on Russian teams after Russia invaded Ukraine.

“We would like our national team to return to the big stage,” said Andrei Filatov, the head of the Russian Chess Federation. said in July.

In Mr Baryshpolets’ hometown of Kyiv on a recent Saturday, chess players gathered in Shevchenko Park, laying out plastic chess pieces on stone tables as they waited for their partners.

Like the federation candidate, almost all of them learned to play from an early age.

“For us, as chess players, it’s not that important, but as Ukrainian citizens, we would like a Ukrainian to be the head of the federation,” said Vadim Weisberger, 63, a businessman who was one of the players.

Others said they left the war behind when they sat down at the chessboard.

“It’s the civilized world of chess,” said Serhiy Maiboroda, a retired police investigator. “Here we talk about chess; politics that we discuss in different places.

Mr. Baryshpolets learned to play chess when he was 6 years old and he was playing tournaments when he was 8 years old. Speaking from his home in Los Angeles, he said his campaign platform included promoting transparency in how tournament venues, including many in Russia, are awarded.

“A big concern that the federations also see is that what is happening inside this black box is not transparent and clear, why certain decisions have been made as they are,” he said. . “There is little communication and explanation to the federations and the chess world.”

Mr Baryshpolets campaigned low-key, meeting delegates in Chennai and taking a regular shuttle bus to the venues. Each national federation has a single vote by secret ballot to elect the president, an unpaid post.

One country that will not support him, it seems, is Ukraine: its federation has backed another candidate. India, meanwhile, appear to have lined up behind Mr Dvorkovich, both in the person of Viswanathan Anand, a former world champion running on the Russian’s ticket, and in their gratitude for Mr Dvorkovich’s help. Dvorkovich in getting the Chess Olympiad moved, a major event with 3,000 players and hundreds of delegates, to Chennai.

The United States Chess Federation said in a statement from its executive director, Carol Meyer, that it has not decided which ticket to support and will wait to hear from its delegation after meeting with all candidates in Chennai. The American team has two Ukrainian players; one of them, Anna Zatonskikh, from Mariupol, said that “it’s wrong to have a Russian at the head of FIDE”.

Chess analysts said with three people challenging Mr Dvorkovich it was possible they would split the opposition vote, reducing the chances of defeating him. Others noted that a secret ballot gave voters the chance to support Mr. Dvorkovich even if their countries opposed the war in Ukraine, and in Russia more generally.

“Everything that happens happens behind the scenes,” said Peter Tamburro Jr., editor of American Chess Magazine.

“I wonder if we are going to have an election heavily influenced by the injection of money into various places,” he added, noting that many member states of the federation are smaller and less wealthy countries.

Lev Alburt, a former Ukrainian chess champion who defected to the United States in 1979 while playing for the Soviet Union, said that if war meant the chess world lost support from major Russian donors , he thought this could be offset by other emerging chess nations with deep pockets.

“In the Arab world, for example,” he said, “the UAE is a big sponsor of chess, and the Saudis are becoming big supporters.”

Mr Alburt said he saw the challenge of world chess as only a small part of the fallout from the war between Ukraine and Russia.

“The world at large is in danger of freezing, like a new cold war,” he said. “And in such a situation, it would be difficult to keep the chess world together.”

Jane Arraf reported from Kyiv, Ukraine, and Ivan Nechepurenko from Tbilisi, Georgia.

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