A tale of two cities

2/28/2004 – Recent reports are true. In an interview with the Russian Sport Express FIDE president Kirsan Ilyumzhinov has confirmed that the next FIDE world championship will be held in Tripoli, Libya. He supplies interesting details. Meanwhile Itar Tass reports that in Kalmykia he is facing mounting political protest. More...

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A tale of two cities

Two news stories have exploded this week, highlighting the fluctuating fortunes of the head of FIDE, the inimitable Kirsan Ilyumzhinov. Never a stranger to controversy (he was one of the last visitors to Saddam Hussein before the war), the president confirmed this week that FIDE will be hosting the 2004 World Chess Championships in – Tripoli, the capital of Libya.

Just two days after this story broke, reports came from InterFax, the Russian news agency, that there have been yet more demonstrations against Ilyumzhinov in Elista, that capital of Kalmykia. Ilyumzhinov is president of this small Russian republic, and groups there are increasingly calling for him to resign, due to allegations of vote-rigging in the recent government elections.

World Championship in Libya

In an interview conducted by Yuri Vasilyev with the premier Russian sports site, ‘Sport Express’, Ilyumzhinov states that the 17th FIDE World Championships will be held in Tripoli from 8th May 2004 to 2nd June 2004, in a knock-out format. Sponsored by the Libyan government, the prize fund is a healthy $1,508,000, the spoils for the eventual champ being $100,000. The organisation itself has secured $700,000.

Chess fans have longed for an announcement regarding the championships, but reaction to this news has been mixed to say the least, due in no small part to the choice of venue. Libya’s past links to terrorist activities (the 1988 bombing of Pan-Am flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie being one) and animosity towards the West made the country a no-go area. Recently Libya has made efforts to raise its international profile, paying compensation for the Lockerbie atrocity and opening its borders to international visitors. Ilyumzhinov is at great pains to point out these changes, citing that Libya is in the running to host the 2010 football World Cup. But whilst FIFA have only considered the possibility of staging the World Cup in Libya, FIDE have already decided. Ilyumzhinov: "The contract has been signed."

The second largest sports organisation in the world beating the first to the Tripoli touchline obviously gives our illustrious leader satisfaction, but all is not settled yet. The venue has to be approved at a meeting of the Presidential Board on 28th-29th February in Kotor, though this appears to be a formality. The fact remains however, that Israeli nationals are not allowed to travel to Libya, which has obvious ramifications for the participants, some of whom will not be permitted to play.


Kalmykian and FIDE president Kirsan Ilyumzhinov

Ilyumzhinov protests at the perceived “unfairness” of the situation. "The problem of visas for Israeli nationals is not only to be found in Libya. Even in the more ‘progressive’ countries of the Arab world, such as the United Arab Emirates, Israeli citizens cannot travel. It is a question of Israel’s relations with the whole Arab world." The FIDE president will not be stopped in his tracks. "I will endeavour to persuade Gaddafi to make an exception for Israeli players. If the plan succeeds, it will be a fantastic breakthrough. If not, then [the proposal] is to split the championship into two groups. One group will play in Tripoli, the other in Malta (it is a half-hour flight from Tripoli)."

The contentious issue of the Prague Agreement is raised in the interview. After the cancellation of the Ponomariov-Kasparov match up last year, the reunification seemed once more to be in disarray. Also – the status of Vishy Anand in all of this is touched upon. The world’s number three seems to many to have been forgotten in the chaos, and Vasilyev jokes about this in the interview by nicknaming Anand “refusenik”. Ilyumzhinov brushes aside the question of Anand, merely reiterating that the plans were put in motion and all agreed upon last year. The President is adamant that the plan is still viable and is timetabling spring 2005 for a match between the FIDE Champion and Garry Kasparov. Plus, he believes that the next World Championship will be held in Vietnam.

Further Protests in Kalmykia

From this triumphant tone, the song starts to sound a little flat in the next story. There were reports in December about small protests against Ilyumzhinov in Elista, the Kalmyk capital. The demonstrators believe that the results in the governmental election were artificially inflated in favour of the ruling power in the region, and hold Ilyumzhinov responsible.

On February 24th, further protests were made, with those taking part holding up slogans declaring "Kirsan is Kalmykia’s trouble, Russia’s disgrace”, and chanting “Ilyumzhinov must go”. More protests are planned, but government officials were quick to brush the actions as those of an isolated group of troublemakers. Either way, it is clear that Kirsan Ilyumzhinov will continue to make international headlines in 2004.

Joanne Pittaway

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