A tough, some say ‘dirty,’ campaign to elect a new president of the international chess federation (FIDE) moved into the northern Norwegian city of Tromsø this week, along with the Chess Olympiad. The campaign pits an allegedly unpopular incumbent against a high-profile chess superstar, with Norway’s own chess elite supporting the latter.
The campaign, which Oslo-based newspaper Aftenposten was among those labelling as “dirty” over the weekend, is full of accusations and counter-accusations, aggressive publicity tactics and biting criticism. It also reflects the ruthless world of Russian politics, since both candidates are Russian and they have completely different views of Russia’s controversial president, Vladimir Putin.
In one corner is the incumbent FIDE president Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, a wealthy if controversial chess official who has held the presidency for 19 years. Aftenposten reported how he’s known for repeatedly claiming that space aliens in yellow suits invited him on board a UFO and he accepted the ride, back in 1997. He also has the support of Putin and reportedly has mobilized the Russian foreign ministry to assist him in his reelection campaign.
Challenging Ilyumzhinov for the world’s top chess post is former top chess player Garry Kasparov, an ardent political foe of Putin who has plastered the streets of downtown Tromsø with election campaign posters. Kasparov spoke to university students in Tromsø on Friday and attacked both Ilyumzhinov and Putin head on. He claimed Ilyumzhinov has been in power far too long and claimed Ilyumzhinov was tied to the “corrupt regime” of Putin, but that it was difficult to beat him because Russian embassies around the world were backing him. Kasparov said he hoped “the free air in Norway” would help him win.
It seems strange for a relatively small and remote place like Tromsø to be caught up in such a campaign, but with thousands of top chess players in town from around the world for the Chess Olympiad that started on Saturday, it could hardly be avoided. Organizers of the Chess Olympiad reportedly made sure that the two men were housed in different hotels.
Norway’s chess federation (Sjakkforbundet) supports Kasparov, and not just because he has worked as a coach for Norwegian chess champion Magnus Carlsen. “We think it’s time for a change,” Jøran Aulin-Jansson, president of the Norwegian federation, told Aftenposten. “Kasparov has good values and draws sponsors to a greater degree than Iljumzjinov has done.”
Asked whether the current FIDE leadership is corrupt, Aulin-Jansson relied that “there are some dirty tricks here and there, no doubt about that. I wouldn’t be shocked if I heard that corruption had taken place.” Aulin-Jansson said he thinks Ilyumzhinov has support in South America but that Kasparov is more popular in Africa. In Asia they’re reportedly running neck and neck, while the European vote is likely to decide the election.
Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported on Monday that Magnus Carlsen personally supports Kasparov because he also thinks Kasparov can attract more sponsors to the sport, something Carlsen has been good at himself. “That’s the most important reason that I’m on (Kasparov’s) side,” Carlsen told DN.
Carlsen was also expecting “dirty tricks” from both sides during the rest of the campaign, conceding such tactics may be needed to win. The election of the next FIDE president will be held in Tromsø on August 11.