Ilyumzhinov decries FIDE treasurer account as "fake news"

by Macauley Peterson
2/22/2018 – The FIDE president, locked in a power struggle with former allies, pushed back on the recent letter from FIDE's treasurer Adrian Siegel in a public statement Wednesday, calling it "fake news". In this editorial, we take a brief look at Ilyumzhinov's response and what it portends. | Image: Ilyumzhinov's official Twitter account

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Lawyer's statement alleges "smear campaign"

In a statement published on February 21st on the "Kirsan Ilymzhinov Information Portal", the embattled FIDE president criticises the media for, what he feels was, uncritical reporting on the letter from FIDE treasurer Adrian Siegel dated February 12. In its opening paragraphs, the statement reads:

The letter of the federation’s treasurer Adrian Siegel published on FIDE website, states that the Swiss UBS bank is ready to close FIDE account in the near future. Even third-party observers immediately noted a number of inconsistencies. First, the sanctions against Ilyumzhinov were introduced by the US Treasury in late November 2015, but for some reason this did not prevent the bankers from serving the federation for more than two years.
Nevertheless, some media seized on Siegel's message. Since the bank did not comment, journalists of some media simply broadcast the message of a misleading letter published on the FIDE website."

In a tweet the same day he referred to the press coverage as "fake news", a term which has become so muddied as to have unfortunately lost much of its meaning. The letter from Siegel was reported by numerous online press organizations, among them, The Telegraph, Bloomberg, The Times, and many more. Most clearly made at least some effort to verify the basic underlying issue:

Is UBS closing the FIDE account or not? And if so, why?

For instance, the Bloomberg story cites a statement from the bank:

"We can’t comment on whether individuals or organizations are clients of UBS. We follow all laws and regulations that are applicable to us," the Zurich-based bank said in a statement. A person answering the phone at FIDE’s office in Lausanne, Switzerland, declined to comment on the matter.

It's a reality of modern day press rooms — even at relatively large news organizations — that reporters have very little time to report out a story like this — perhaps 30 minutes or less. This is one reason why mainstream media coverage of chess is often terrible.

In this case, Dr. Siegel's statement was fairly unequivocal, and he is in a position to know. As we reported the day after the letter was published, he stated that "the Swiss bank UBS has announced that they will immediately close our accounts."

However, two days later, he told chess.com that, "At the moment we are completely functional. However, we know that UBS most likely will close the account at the latest by April." So, it seems, by "immediately" he meant "very soon".

Is that misleading? A little. According to Ilyumzhinov, it's one of "a number of false statements...as part of an ongoing smear campaign in advance of the FIDE elections later this year."

This is a bit overly dramatic. The practical implication is that FIDE needs to find a new bank and this may be difficult, whether it's next week or next month. In any case, we'll soon find out — well in advance of the election which will take place in Batumi, Georgia, along side the 43rd Chess Olympiad. If FIDE's UBS account remains open and operational through April, then the FIDE treasurer will look like the proverbial Chicken Little and will have some explaining to do.

Ilyumzhinov makes one additional point:

Public documents released in 2015 by the U.S. Department of Treasury do not allege that Mr Ilyumzhinov has been sanctioned by the US as a result of him conducting oil deals involving ISIS.

That's technically true, which is why we linked to the original documents and reported that he was under sanction "due to his links with the Russian Financial Alliance Bank". The statement from his "London lawyers" (as the Kirsan.today post calls them), uses the carefully-worded phrase, "as a result of him conducting oil deals involving ISIS".

That is indeed not alleged by the U.S. Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), whose press release dated November 25, 2015, spells out the connection a bit more:

Kirsan Ilyumzhinov was designated today for materially assisting and acting for or on behalf of the Government of Syria, Central Bank of Syria, Adib Mayaleh, and Batoul Rida...Ilyumzhinov is a major shareholder of RFA Bank and former Chairman of the Board of Directors of RFA Bank.  At the time of his Chairmanship, Ilyumzhinov reportedly brought in his own representatives to the bank.

Rather than alleging a direct link between Ilyumzhinov and any "oil deals", Siegal's statement in the February 12th letter implicitly relies on further reporting, for instance from the Financial Times, that makes the link between aiding the Syrian government and aiding ISIS, without directly connecting Ilyumzhinov to the two. Of course, it is worth keeping in mind these are, at this point, unproven allegations.

2015 headline from the FT

Headlines like this from the FT have dogged Kirsan Ilyumzhinov for years

When it comes to Swiss banking officials, however, this may be a distinction without a difference, and all that matters is that Ilymzhinov has had over two years to clear his name, and hasn't. Indeed there has been scant evidence that he has actually taken any steps to do so.

At the end of the FT reporting, for instance, Ilyumzhinov is paraphrased as follows:

He said he would be in the US next week for talks for his next chess world championship match, and had no plans to cancel his trip.

He not only cancelled his trip, he hasn't set foot in the USA (so far as we know) since. His own statements on the matter have been misleading, vague, or just plain wrong.

Ilymzhinov is certainly entitled to due process when it comes to the OFAC sanctions. But the fact that those sanctions have presented, and continue to present, a risk to FIDE — while Ilyumzhinov remains, nominally, the head of the organisation — is clear. In a sense the news of FIDE's banking woes — whether "immediate" or "imminent" — should come as no surprise.

FIDE, as an international organization of national federations, need not be responsible for the personal financial, legal, and political problems of any one of its officers. Assuming FIDE's UBS account will in fact close, the treasurer could dispell any notion that the stated reasons for the UBS action are "fake" by publically disclosing the communications that directly link the sanctions to the account closure. That would certainly inform the General Assembly's deliberations in the coming months. Beyond that, Ilyumzhinov is free to continue his "fight for justice", exercising his "skills as a senior statesman".

We closed our previous report with a question, about whether the public excoriation would persuade Ilyumzhinov to abandon his re-election bid, or strengthen his resolve?

Now, it looks a lot more like the latter.

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Macauley served as the Editor in Chief of ChessBase News from July 2017 to March 2020. He is the producer of The Full English Breakfast chess podcast, and was an Associate Producer of the 2016 feature documentary, Magnus.