ELISTA, RUSSIA — ELISTA, Russia -- Kirsan Ilyumzhinov roams his small domain like royalty, resplendent in a white Rolls Royce, his warrior-guards mounted behind him on a formidable Humvee, stirring clouds of dust as they race across the dry, empty steppe.
Little wonder that he worships chess. The name of the game comes from the Persian word for king, and Ilyumzhinov luxuriates in the notion. He uses the Mongol word to describe himself: the khan of Kalmykia. His is a modest kingdom. He is president of the ethnic republic of Kalmykia, a region of 350,000 mostly poor shepherds and farmers in southern Russia.
But a small board has never limited an ambitious chess player. With one calculated move after another, Ilyumzhinov has pulled off his biggest match yet, persuading 1,200 of the world's finest chess players to convene in this out-of-the-way provincial capital for the chess Olympics. And he has reached this moment, his opponents say, by plotting to steal and even to murder. The citizens of Kalmykia, they say, are the trampled pawns in a sinister game.
Human rights organizations, which have deep suspicions about the government here, urged chess players to boycott the tournament, largely unsuccessfully. A journalist opposed to Ilyumzhinov was murdered in June; questions have been raised about the propriety of spending money on a game when most people are desperately poor. Even the U.S. government has become involved, making a highly unusual decision to give two Kalmyk families sanctuary because they fear political persecution.
The story of Kirsan Ilyumzhinov could be told in many of Russia's regions, where local leaders rule supreme, neglected by a Moscow occupied with its own intrigues.
Ilyumzhinov, perhaps, stands apart because of his ardor for capitalism and for fame, and because of an odd twist of history. Kalmykians -- descended from the Mongols -- are the only native Buddhist population in Europe.
Ilyumzhinov first got attention playing chess, winning Kalmykia's chess championship at age 15, and he has longed for the limelight ever since.
He became a millionaire in the early post-Soviet days, president of Kalmykia in 1993 when he was 31 years old, and president of the World Chess Federation in 1995.
Today, despite opposition from Russian chess officials and even Boris N. Yeltsin, Ilyumzhinov is putting on the federation's 33rd Olympiad in this town of 100,000 people, where a little white dog trots onto the airstrip to greet the few arriving flights, cows graze and chickens wander in yards in the city limits and a teacher earns $35 a month.
"It's like a feast during the plague," says Gennady V. Yudin, whose wife, Larisa, was murdered June 7. The crusading editor of the opposition Sovietskaya Kalmykia newspaper, she was investigating Ilyumzhinov's financial affairs.
On that Sunday evening, Larisa, who was 52, left her fifth-floor apartment after receiving a phone call offering her incriminating documents. Larisa went out wearing her house slippers, telling Gennady she would have a quick meeting on the sidewalk.
She never came back. Her body, stabbed numerous times, was later found dumped in a pond not far away.
Four men have been arrested, two of them associated with Ilyumzhinov, as many people are in this small town. But no evidence has been produced linking the president to the murder. He was out of town when it happened.
Ilyumzhinov -- who handed out $100 bills in his first election campaign -- has been accused of so many improprieties in his career that he has published a 32-page comic book, written in English, to deflect the charges. "They call him extraordinary, unpredictable, phenomenal," the cover exclaims. "There are many rumors about him. But the truth is much more surprising "
Ilyumzhinov says he earned his money working for a Japanese company in Moscow in 1989 and parlayed that experience into setting up a host of companies from automobile sales to shipping. He calls himself a model of the new, young Russian capitalist.
Splendor and poverty
Despite Kalmykia's poverty, he built a shining Olympic village on 250 barren acres. The chess players are living in 87 Western-style stucco houses with smart tile roofs. They are playing chess in a five-story glass palace. Ilyumzhinov calls the village City Chess and gave it a special, city-statelike territorial status. It rises from the steppe at the edge of town as if from a faraway world.
To Ilyumzhinov's embarrassment, when the players arrived Sept. City Chess was not finished. Neither was the airport. Play was delayed for two days while the chess palace was turned from open-air pavilion into a building by workmen on the job 24 hours a day.
The project fell victim to Russia's economic and banking crisis. Ilyumzhinov said Kalmykia had lost $10 million when banks collapsed. In an interview last week, he denied charges that he had financed construction by diverting child welfare funds, but he was vague about where the money actually came from.
"Tomorrow they will accuse me of going to Mars and stealing money from the inhabitants there," he said. "It's not real. It's science fiction. I don't know how to respond. It's not a serious question."
Officials of the World Chess Federation say they know their president as a charming, energetic and honest man who keeps his promises.
"Everything is quite normal here, except of course for the journalists," said Geurt Gijssen, the chief arbiter, who is from the Netherlands. "They're talking about a bad president, violations of human rights, boycotts. I don't understand it."
There are no demonstrations -- only welcomes.
And after wandering around aimlessly for a few days, the players were eager to begin.
"It's pretty important," said Alexander Shabalov, a member of the U.S. team from Pittsburgh. "The best people come."
The Americans, mostly Russian emigrants, quickly vanquished their first opponent, Iran. The most serious challenge was to player Boris Gulko, who couldn't push his clock lever down after 5 p.m. Tuesday because it was Yom Kippur. The judges assigned a volunteer to do it for him.
Whether they wanted to or not, Kalmykians contributed mightily to the effort. For the first time in years, roads were paved -- but only those leading to City Chess. Those roads were closed to anyone without a pass, and all others were so pitted they almost looked as if they had been bombed.
Ilyumzhinov decided the players should see green median strips en route to City Chess. Gardeners watered relentlessly, trying to coax grass from dry, sandy soil. Inhabitants of the upper floors of apartment buildings soon found themselves with only a sporadic supply of water as pressure fell.
Ilyumzhinov ordered every Kalmykian organization to sponsor a team, which meant they had to furnish rooms at City Chess with everything from teaspoons to sofas, providing food and even cooks.
With few places to turn for supplies, bureaucrats often had to give up their personal and office furnishings. Only a few curtains were left hanging in the government building.
"The Statistics Committee got Peru," Yudin said. "The apartment had been used by the construction workers, and it was a huge job fixing it up. As for the local publishing house, they got Tajikistan, and they were happy. The Tajiks weren't used to much comfort, and it was easy to take care of them."
A feeling of rebirth
Still, many ordinary people insisted that it was worth it. Their city was clean and painted for the first time in years, they said, and the world was noticing them.
They are proud, even awe-struck. The traffic police, so feared across all Russia, grin shyly when they discover a stray American, insist on guiding her across the street, and blush in attempting a labored "good luck" in English.
"This nation has never had a world-level event," said Yelena B. Pokaninova, one of the president's youthful advisers. "The feeling of pride is worth the price. We're being reborn."
One day last week, she sat at her desk -- with a small picture of the Dalai Lama covered reverently with a plastic bag -- and talked about how the Kalmyks came from a Mongolian tribe, how they settled here in the 1600s. Stalin destroyed their temples, accused them of aiding the Germans in World War II and transported them to Siberia in cattle cars, with 65 percent of the population dying.
"We lost everything," she said.
New repression feared
Ilyumzhinov's critics insist that that repressive era is being revisited, and they mention the case of Lidia Dordzhiyeva.
In 1995, she set up an organization to help disabled children. Ilyumzhinov gave her large donations, but the two eventually fell out. In March, Dordzhiyeva led a hunger strike, protesting City Chess.
At first, said Diederik Lohman, the director of Human Rights Watch/Helsinki in Moscow, it was ignored. Then one day police arrived, declared there had been a bomb threat and cleared everyone out. Those who resisted were beaten, he said, and Dordzhiyeva was taken to a mental hospital. She was released five days later.
Dordzhiyeva and Larisa Yudin were allies, joined in opposition to Ilyumzhinov. And Dordzhiyeva was not only badly distressed but also terrified when Larisa was killed. She spoke at the funeral, and she began to get phone calls with only silence on the other end. In July, saying she had been threatened, Dordzhiyeva and her two children fled Elista with another family. They sought refugee status in Moscow, but Russian officials denied it, ruling there was no persecution of Kalmykians in Kalmykia.
"She decided to find asylum elsewhere," Lohman said. "I honestly didn't think she had a chance -- especially in the U.S."
To Lohman's astonishment, the U.S. government quietly granted the two families refugee status recently. They plan to leave as soon as they can obtain an exit visa from Russia.
Though nearly half of the 90,000 refugees admitted to the United States in 1996 were from the Soviet Union, Lohman said it has become almost unheard of to grant sanctuary for political reasons. The overwhelming number of refugees, he said, are Jewish.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service accepts refugees in five different categories but doesn't break its figures down according to category, said Andrew L. Lluberes, an INS spokesman in Washington.
Message from the West
The case says a great deal about Russia and what is happening in regions like Kalmykia, Lohman said.
"The West has so far supported Yeltsin without questioning what he was doing," Lohman said. "It's obvious when you start accepting refugees on political grounds from a country you're supporting that you're starting to say something is really wrong."
The case also reveals an unwritten bargain the central government has struck with the regions, he said. "In exchange for support or a promise not to secede, the federal government gives regional leaders the right to do as they see fit," he said.
There's still an opposition in Elista. Its leader, Ivan Ryzhkov, says he has no intention of giving up. He's not afraid, he said, and he's not fleeing anywhere. "The women could not stand it," he said. "Their nerves failed."
But most people are so busy worrying about survival in a region where pay is rock bottom and jobs are few that they hardly think about resistance or acquiescence. They barely notice when their president's ostentatious cortege rushes by.
"Truth?" says Gennady Yudin. "It's hard to tell if it will ever be found."
Pub Date: 10/04/98