The Russian diplomatic effort to influence the FIDE election

by Tim Wall
8/11/2018 – Given the recent history of Russian diplomatic resources being exercised to aid the re-election bids of FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, it is not terribly surprising that evidence is emerging of similar official government actions in support of the Russian candidate in 2018, Arkady Dvorkovich. However, in a new development, the Russian leader Vladimir Putin himself has apparently directly intervened in the Kremlin’s global campaign to get national chess federations to support his former deputy prime minister, adding weight to communiqués from embassies which are also surfacing. | Photo: kremlin.ru

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Putin asks Israel to back Dvorkovich

At a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Kremlin on July 11, Vladimir Putin allegedly asked him to get the Israeli Chess Federation to back Dvorkovich, also promising that in return Russia would work to get "the next championship" held in Israel.

Such a high-level intervention in the FIDE presidential election was revealed in an email from Ms. Pnina El-al, Director of the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Culture, Education and Academy Department, to the Israeli Chess Federation and exposes for the first time the extent of Russian government efforts to swing the election of FIDE president their way, and away from rival challengers — the incumbent Deputy President Georgios Makropoulos of Greece and English GM Nigel Short.

The email revealing Putin’s entreaty, in Hebrew, with the official letterhead of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, states:

In the [July 11] meeting of PM Netanyahu with Russian president Putin last week, the Russian president [Putin] asked the prime minister for Israel's support of the candidacy of the former deputy prime minister Arkady Dvorkovich as FIDE President. Putin, for his part, said that in return Russia would support Israel's candidacy to host the next championship. 
I would be glad to receive your opinion on this matter.

Greetings,
Pnina El Al  

Pnina email headersבפגישת רה"מ נתניהו  עם נשיא רוסיה פוטין בשבוע שעבר (11.7) ביקש נשיא רוסיה מרוה"מ, שישראל תתמוך במועמדותו של סגן רוה"מ לשעבר, ארקדי דבורקוביץ' לתפקיד נשיא איגוד השחמט העולמי FIDE.
פוטין מצדו מסר שרוסיה תתמוך בתמורה במועמדות ישראל לאירוח האליפות הבאה.
 
אשמח לקבל חוו"ד עמדתכם בנושא.
 
בברכה,
 
פנינה אל-על

The original Hebrew text and email headers (click or tap to expand) shared with ChessBase

‘Against IOC principles’

Such an intervention would appear to be in direct contravention of FIDE’s adoption of the International Olympic Committee’s principles, which outlaw such pressure being applied by governments into the affairs of independent sports organisations.

Israel Gelfer, the FIDE Vice President who chairs the FIDE Anti-Cheating Commission, confirmed by phone Thursday that he had seen the email sent by the Israeli Foreign Ministry official, which he said had reached the Makropoulos campaign after being shared by an unnamed source at the Israeli Chess Federation.

"It was clear that President Putin was asking Prime Minister Netanyahu to support Dvorkovich, and in return some favour (such as the awarding of some future championship) would be made to Israel," Gelfer said. "This is against the principles of the IOC, which specify that there should be no political interference in sporting federations. We believe that this kind of interference, by Russian ambassadors and consulates, is happening all over the world."

Gelfer added that the Russian intervention had the effect of putting pressure on the chess federation, even if not directly, to influence the vote.

"You can imagine that some chess officials believe it is their obligation, or a matter of national security, that if their prime minister is asked to do something, and in return something will be done to help that country, then the federation may feel under pressure to do what the politician wants."

When contacted by phone Thursday, Ms. El-al, the Israeli Foreign Ministry official, refused to comment on the contents of the email or to confirm its existence.

IOC logoThe neutrality of governments in the internal governance of sporting bodies stems from a resolution adopted by consensus at the 69th regular session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in New York in 2014 (PDF). The document states that the General Assembly "supports the independence and autonomy of sport as well as the mission of the IOC in leading the Olympic Movement".

IOC President Thomas Bach previously addressed the prior UNGA in New York in November 2013, and his remarks include discussion of the importance of political autonomy:

Sport [is] truly the only area of human existence which has achieved universal law...But to apply this universal law worldwide, sport has to enjoy responsible autonomy. Politics must respect this sporting autonomy.

The 2015 Olympic Charter itself proscribes "outside influence" clearly in its Fundamental Principles of Olympism:

Recognising that sport occurs within the framework of society, sports organisations within the Olympic Movement shall have the rights and obligations of autonomy, which include freely establishing and controlling the rules of sport, determining the structure and governance of their organisations, enjoying the right of elections free from any outside influence and the responsibility for ensuring that principles of good governance be applied. [PDF - Page 13]

'High Stakes Game of Chess With Putin'

The context of the July 11 conversation between Putin and Netanyahu was one of high-level geopolitics and security issues. The talks focused mainly on the conflict in Syria, and it was the ninth such encounter since Russia intervened militarily in Syria in September 2015.

JP headlineNetanyahu has characterised the meetings as "very important for Israel’s national security", while they also lend a certain legitimacy to Putin at a time when the West is imposing sanctions on Moscow. The diplomacy between Tel Aviv and Moscow, according to a chess-as-geopolitics analysis article in The Jerusalem Post, was described as (presumably, with unintentional irony), "Netanyahu’s High Stakes Game of Chess with Putin in Moscow".

Dvorkovich, commenting via Bachar Kouatly, his candidate for Deputy President, denied that any FIDE or IOC rules had been breached by Russian government officials reaching out to chess federations or national governments.

"To the best of my knowledge, the information about [our] FIDE campaign has been mentioned at different official, including embassy contacts, BUT only to inform partners about the fact and never promising anything in return for the votes,” Kouatly said on behalf of the Dvorkovich campaign in a written response to questions. "So, no violation of any FIDE or IOC rules happened, or could be claimed."

"Informing partners about the campaign that involves a Russian candidate is a normal thing provided nothing is offered in return and we strongly condemn any attempts to buy the votes whether it is using FIDE money/capacity or doing any administrative favors. We will insist that all candidates have to follow the same principles," the statement continued.

Kouatly also pledged that, if Dvorkovich were elected, he would "take [all the] required steps to prevent political interference into the affairs of chess federations, while at the same time seeking long-term partnerships with national governments to develop chess all around the world."

‘Instrument of soft power’

Malcolm Pein, Makropoulos’s candidate for Deputy President, said Makropoulos and his "FIDE Forward" team "condemn [the Russian government interference] and demand it ceases".

"This is proof that the Kremlin sees FIDE as an instrument of soft power and seeks to dominate the organisation. This kind of interference is against IOC regulations and from an electoral campaign perspective clearly unethical".

"We have the sad spectacle of Bachar Kouatly, Mr Dvorkovich’s candidate for Deputy President, running around the world telling voting delegates that there will be no Kremlin influence if he is elected, while at the same time we see Russian embassies worldwide being mobilised and even Vladimir Putin himself seeking to influence the election".

Nigel Short, contacted in the UAE, where he is playing in the Abu Dhabi Masters, took a different tack, however, saying that Makropoulos himself had benefitted from Russian interference in FIDE elections in the past.

Putin’s intervention "highlighted why I am the only choice to clean up FIDE", Short said in an emailed response to questions.

He added:

"Makro, who retains control of the FIDE finances, website and distribution of positions (almost invariably awarded on political loyalty — in contravention of FIDE statutes) has been a massive beneficiary of Russian diplomatic intervention for decades. It obviously skews elections significantly. However only now, when Makro no longer enjoys Russian support, does he take exception to it."

Mark Galeotti, a Russia expert at the Institute of International Relations in Prague, said the request to Netanyahu was no surprise. "This absolutely fits into Putin’s current approach to building soft power through sports and cultural events — and it may also be a reward for Dvorkovich. Putin also knows to reward good behaviour and loyalty”.

‘Dozens’ of embassies involved

Adrian Siegel, the FIDE Treasurer since 2014 who is now running on the Makropoulos ticket, spelled out just how widespread he saw the Russian government’s influence as being.

"To the best of my knowledge, something we can observe is a lot of Russian embassies around the world — dozens of them — approaching the presidents of chess federations, and also the heads of national Olympic Committees and politicians."

"In South America, almost all countries’ chess federations have been approached and asked to vote for Dvorkovich. There have been attempts to replace the FIDE delegate in countries if that person was thought to oppose his candidacy."

He cited the example of Uruguay, where a leaked letter to IM Bernardo Roselli Mailhe, the president of the Uruguayan Chess Federation, from Viktor Popovich, Senior Advisor at the Russian Embassy in Uruguay, seems to offer a certain quid pro quo if the Uruguayan Chess Federation votes for Dvorkovich (PDF).

Uruguay letter

ChessBase contacted the Uruguay Chess Federation which declined to either confirm or deny receipt of the letter

Popovich writes:

Arkady Dvorkovich meets many representatives of the international administrative elite, leaders and heads of large corporations. Your experience and professionalism will be useful for the development of chess in the world.

The letter continues:

Appreciating the close ties of friendship between our countries, I would greatly appreciate your valuable support for the candidacy of Mr. Arkady Dvorkovich as President of FIDE in the aforementioned elections.

There seems to be a clear inference that Dvorkovich's political and business influence could be of benefit to Uruguayan chess and the official himself, and that his support, in turn, would be "valuable" to Dvorkovich and the Russian authorities.

In the case of Brazil, the financial incentive offered appears to be even clearer. A letter from the Russian Embassy in Brazil to the Brazilian Foreign Ministry touts the credentials of Dvorkovich for FIDE president, and then comes directly to the point (PDF):

In case [Dvorkovich] is elected, it is possible to envisage an increase in FIDE’s budget to finance the development of chess in its member countries. In this context, the Russian Federation would appreciate the support of the Federative Republic of Brazil for Mr Arkady Dvorkovich's application to the position.

Brazil letter

The Brazilian Chess Federation confirmed the letter was sent through the Brazilian Foreign Affairs Office

Siegel gave other examples of Russian government intervention in Europe and the former Soviet Union.

"In the Czech Republic, the prime minister is pushing the president of the national chess federation to support Dvorkovich. In Azerbaijan, President Ilham Aliyev tried to put pressure on neighbouring Georgia, and the president of its chess federation, Zurab Azmaiparashvili."


Update - August 17th: Viktor Novotny, President of the Czech Chess Federation, subsequently informed us that Mr. Siegel’s assertion was in error, noting ‘no member of our government contacted me, my colleague honorary president Jan Lamser nor our National Olympic Committee.’ He conveyed that he believes the FIDE Treasurer’s mistake to have been made in good faith and received an apology.


Siegel said that he had not seen before the "systematic political pressure that we are seeing now", and in apparent answer to Short's argument, attempts to exculpate Makropoulos from prior Russian influence campaigns:

"As I understand it, it was not Makropoulos but Kirsan Ilyumzhinov and the manager of his Moscow office [Berik Balgabaev -Ed.] who travelled around countries, making promises about money to national federations. After the 2014 election in Tromso, people from all over the world contacted me as FIDE Treasurer, asking for these promises to be redeemed. I replied, politely, that there was no money in the budget for those requested payments".

"The difference is now that there is a combination of money and bribery, on one hand, and political pressure on the other. As we learned from this email, even the highest level in the Kremlin is involved".

Siegel painted a bleak picture of the future if Dvorkovich were to win the election.

"Each federation in Europe and America now has to ask themselves: 'Do we really want to politicize this sports organisation, and have the influence of the Kremlin over chess, when the US and EU sanctions could affect FIDE?' It's not a question of what we think of these sanctions, just that they are a reality."

Siegel said, in contrast, the Makropoulos team's prescription for cutting out political influence would be twofold:

"First, strengthen the statutes so that any influence from a government is banned. It doesn't have to be just Russia, it could be any country. For example, if Trump is in charge for several more years, he could do some pretty strange things."

"Second, give the Election Integrity Commission teeth so that it can impose penalties, including banning a chess official from holding office in a national chess federation if they are found to have accepted a bribe."

The comments by Siegel, Pein and Gelfer about Russian government interference come just days after Viktor Kapustin, the president of the Ukrainian Chess Federation, condemned Putin’s intervention in Israel in an open letter circulated to chess media via e-mail on August 6th.

Kapustin, a banker and economics expert who became president of the Ukrainian Chess Federation in 2010, said that Putin’s request for support and promise in exchange of a sporting event for Israel should be considered a clear "favour for a favour" and "the height of pressure and interference into the affairs of the independent FIDE."

After alluding to similarities between Dvorkovich’s FIDE campaign and his titular role as organiser of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, and dubious methods used to persuade FIFA officials to award Russia the football tournament, Kapustin pointed to the allegations that many chess officials from around the world were invited to come and were given free tickets to World Cup games this summer, courtesy of Dvorkovich, who acknowledges the gifts but denies any conflict of interest.

A role for Short in Dvorkovich’s team?

The board of the Association of Chess Professionals, led by Israeli GM Emil Sutovsky, recently expressed its support for Dvorkovich and suggested that there could be a place for Nigel Short in Dvorkovich's team.

ACP logo

We also share many points aired by another candidate, GM Nigel Short, and we think he could be an important member of the new team. However, his very limited managing experience and different set of skills lead us to believe he would be better suited as a valuable contributor rather than a leader.

In recent interviews, published since the Putin-Netanyahu meeting, Dvorkovich has insisted that he is not using the resources of the Russian government to aid his campaign.

"I am using my own money, that’s the difference," Dvorkovich said. "I follow what I said: I don’t use any embassies or state money."

That statement seems at direct variance with the evidence from Israel, Uruguay and Brazil, and the numerous reports that Russian government resources and embassies are being used to influence the election. 

Yet Dvorkovich claims to know nothing about any Russian embassies’ efforts on his behalf.

"As far as I know, up to now there was nothing, not even an instruction from Moscow to the embassies abroad to do anything about my nomination," he told Chess.com.

Dvorkovich reporting to Putin

Putin publicly met with Dvorkovich most recently at the Russian State Council in Kaliningrad on July 20, where the head of state "wished him well with the FIDE elections", according to a report of the meeting by the Russian state-owned TASS news agency. "Dvorkovich made a report on the successful organisation of the FIFA World Cup. Putin said with a smile, 'This will also be the case when you are elected president of FIDE.'"

Russian State Council Meeting

Joint meeting of the Council for the Development of Physical Fitness and Sport and the Russia 2018 Local Organising Committee’s Supervisory Board | Photo: en.kremlin.ru

The State Council is a select gathering of senior Kremlin, government and other officials, which reports to Putin a few times a year. As Deputy Prime Minister until May 2018, Dvorkovich has also presented reports to this governmental body in his role as co-chairman of the Skolkovo Foundation, Russia’s supposed answer to Silicon Valley, a government-led tech project just outside Moscow that has consumed many billions of taxpayers' rubles over the last decade, but has produced little in the way of genuine innovation or major new businesses.

Dvorkovich's co-chairman at the Skolkovo Foundation, businessman Viktor Vekselberg, is currently on the US sanctions list for Russian officials, along with outgoing FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov. Dvorkovich himself is No. 49 on a "pre-sanctions list," (PDF) which means the US Treasury Department has the power to impose sanctions on him at any time. 

The January 2018 list — mandated by the US Congress and compiled by the Trump administration, is of "senior political figures and oligarchs", and has been derided as having "simply copied the Kremlin’s phonebook." It remains to be seen what ramifications may follow in practical terms for the people listed.

‘Money for Control era has to end’

Pein said he saw the FIDE election as a chance to improve the image of chess worldwide, and to work with Russia as a partner, rather than under its domination.

"Well, we have seen where Russian domination in FIDE gets us, with the same President from the same country for the last 24 years, and the diminution of the image of chess. The disastrous effect it's had on our reputation and even ability to operate freely is down to Russian domination. Russia is a great chess country, the greatest but it needs to position itself as a valued partner that works with FIDE, not as a dominating force.

We have seen in FIFA and formerly in the IOC and to an extent in FIDE what can happen when one country dominates or has too much influence. This era of 'Money for Control' has to end."

Links




Tim is a FIDE Master, journalist, chess coach and FIDE International Organiser from Newcastle upon Tyne, England. From 1999-2016 he worked as a journalist and editor in Russia and Azerbaijan for such publications as The Moscow Times, The Moscow News and Caspian Business News. In February 2018, he organised the Northumbria Masters, resuming a series of international tournaments in the North East of England that he began in the 1990s.
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fons3 fons3 8/12/2018 01:31
@ Budd - If you compare what the US is doing in the world vs what Russia is doing it's clear who the real "rogue nation" is, and it's not Russia.

Of course I don't approve of this meddling by Russia.
But answer this question: who used their enormous military and political power to make sure Kirsan was removed from FIDE by putting him on a sanctions list?

Let's hope all of this nonsense is not going to lead people to vote for Makro because with him it's going to be more of the same as well.
Budd Budd 8/12/2018 12:03
Russia is a rogue nation and should be treated accordingly.
david gonzalez david gonzalez 8/12/2018 04:26
Mr Dvorkovich seems to be a capable,efficient man, his high level Rusian government connections could be an asset for Fide .Mr Makropoulous has had his chance and what we have is not good,its time for a change.
CMPonCB CMPonCB 8/11/2018 08:47
Well yes, if federations are desperately keen to see another round of prestigious tournaments held in Khanty Mansiysk, then they can indeed vote for Dvorkovich (aka The Kremlin).
Ajeeb007 Ajeeb007 8/11/2018 04:46
Makros replacing Kirsan is like Medvedev replacing Putin. It's just a game of musical chairs.
Keith Homeyard Keith Homeyard 8/11/2018 02:39
Not surprised by this - with Putin now indicating an interest Nigel is effectively being told to "go forth and multiply" :(
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