Kirsan Ilyumzhinov is still the FIDE president, but all major powers are in the hands of deputy president Georgios Makropoulos. Yesterday's extraordinary presidential board meeting in Athens, described as "peaceful" by attendants, further confirmed Ilyumzhinov's weakened position.
Chess.com interviewed the key players in Athens after the meeting concluded.
Kirsan Ilyumzhinov yesterday in Athens. | Photo Maria Emelianova.
Scattered around the magnificent rooftop restaurant on the seventh floor, enjoying a stunning view of the Temple of Olympian Zeus and the Acropolis, FIDE officials were having an early breakfast on Monday morning at the five-star Royal Olympic hotel in Athens. The pleasant atmosphere wouldn't change during their meeting that morning.
Kirsan Ilyumzhinov was the last to arrive in the meeting room on the fourth floor. It was quarter past nine. Joined by his assistant Berik Balgabaev, the FIDE president was smiling to everyone, but looked tired. He had landed two hours earlier at Athens airport, after an overnight flight from Turkmenistan.
Almost the full presidential board gathered for this extraordinary meeting, which took place only two weeks after its previous meeting, also in Athens. Ilyumzhinov's biggest ally, the president of the Russian Chess Federation Andrey Filatov, again didn't attend.
The only topic for the meeting (though spread over several sub-topics on the agenda): the position of Ilyumzhinov himself. He had stepped down as FIDE president; at least that's what FIDE officials claimed. In the media and in open letters Ilyumzhinov had denied this.
Request for letter
Ilyumzhinov's intention to resign was more serious than it seemed, according to FIDE deputy president Makropoulos. He told Chess.com that the president had not only verbally stated that he would resign, but that he had also requested a letter from the FIDE secretariat to sign. "But then he changed his mind," said Makropoulos.
"This is not completely true," Ilyumzhinov said to Chess.com. "First of all it was a private conversation, and Makropoulos wasn't there, he was told by other people. And everything I said was under big emotional stress.
"I said: 'If I am doing something wrong for FIDE I will resign.' And I asked for this letter so that I could think about it. But it was very emotional. Some board members even said that I should not make such decisions in this state. But somebody wants me to leave, so they decided to use it."
Still, the eccentric Kalmykian chess leader expressed the words "I resign" last month, supposedly three times. It occurred after debate about Agon, the company that organizes events in the world championship cycle. As it turns out, the arrears of this company have become more serious.
Agon in arrears
Not only does Agon still have to pay FIDE's part of the prize money for the 2015 World Rapid and Blitz Championship in Berlin (U.S. $80,000), but there's also an amount of €500,000 for FIDE royalties pending, as prescribed in the 2012 contract between FIDE and Agon. This should have been paid by the end of 2016.
The Agon situation led to a heavy debate, and resulted in all the turmoil of the last two weeks. Whether a coup inside FIDE was talking place or not, Ilyumzhinov's position as FIDE president seemed severely weakened.
Ilyumzhinov with his assistant Berik Balgabaev. | Photo Maria Emelianova.
Yesterday's meeting was one behind closed doors. Balgabaev and even Polina Tsedenova, FIDE's trustworthy administrative manager, had to wait outside. However, a few minutes into the meeting the door suddenly opened again, and Tsedenova was asked inside. Ilyumzhinov had requested her to translate for him—something he usually doesn't ask for. He usually conducts meetings in English without issue.
It might have been a tactic to win time, or Ilyumzhinov was seriously worried about being misinterpreted. After all, he and the other board members did have very different views of what had happened, and he had blamed a translation error for the confusion whether he had resigned from office or not.
The meeting lasted a bit less than three hours, and finished comfortably before lunch time. The result wasn't the bombshell that some insiders had anticipated.
Right afterward, the word "status quo" was used, and the meeting was described as "fruitful" and "peaceful," but the board members refrained from further comments. "First a press release, then comments," said FIDE executive director Nigel Freeman, and he joined the board members for lunch.
This took place in the "Smile" restaurant, close to the hotel and to the FIDE office in Athens. It's a place where FIDE deputy president Georgios Makropoulos can often be found, and that is called "the real FIDE office" by some.
At 16:15 the press release was published.
FIDE begins by stating that "the Board unanimously confirmed the legality of the meeting." This pertained to the fact that according to the FIDE statutes it's the FIDE president who initiates an extraordinary presidential board meeting, and Ilyumzhinov had in fact protested against it in one of his open letters.
The second point mentions that the board, again unanimously, reconfirmed Ilyumzhinov's decision of December 2015 "to withdraw from any legal, financial and business operations of FIDE is to enable him to concentrate on clearing the situation with the U.S. Department of the Treasury."
Ever since that decision was made, it was always somewhat unclear which powers Ilyumzhinov still had, and which not. Yesterday the board decided that all powers as described in Chapter 9 of the FIDE Statutes are fully delegated to the FIDE deputy president.
In short, Makropoulos can now represent FIDE officially, he can solely sign for FIDE (though contracts are still subject to prior approval or subsequent ratification by the presidential board), and he presides over the meetings of the general assembly, the executive board and the presidential board.
"I was already doing this, technically, but now it's completely clear," Makropoulos said to Chess.com.
In his last open letter, dated April 6, Ilyumzhinov had stated that he was "revoking" his decision of December 6, 2015, but yesterday he resigned this legal battle. There is, in fact, very little left for him to do in FIDE. Makropoulos: "According to the statutes, there is not."
If this weren't enough, Ilyumzhinov then had to explain his emotional remarks from the previous meeting, and also apologized for the statements he made since the last meeting. "He went back to Russia and started saying things that weren't true," said Makropoulos.
Thereupon it was unanimously agreed "that no statements would be made on behalf of FIDE, or purporting to represent FIDE, unless such statements are made with prior approval of the FIDE Secretariat."
Ilyumzhinov checking his phone after the meeting. | Photo Maria Emelianova.
After arriving last, and eating humble pie at the meeting, Ilyumzhinov was the first to leave Athens again. By the time the press release was posted, he was already up in the air again, on his way to Moscow (with a stopover in Larnaca, Cyprus).
After landing in Moscow, Ilyumzhinov told Chess.com that he didn't get to see a draft before the press release was published. Despite not agreeing with everything, he decided not to object.
"Even though I had reasons to expect apologies, I decided to sacrifice my self-esteem for the good of chess, and not to enter any discussions on this last meeting. I don't want to create more problems. It's better not to divide FIDE even more. I told them: whatever you'll decide, publish it and I will accept. I trust you."
Ilyumzhinov emphasized that he is acting for the good of chess. "In the press release there is a note at the end that all the decisions are for the unity of the chess world. That should have been at the start."
President no longer after 2018?
Until the new elections in 2018, Ilyumzhinov is a FIDE president with hardly any power. Furthermore, if the U.S. sanctions against him remain in place, it will be difficult for him to run for another term. In fact, yesterday the members of the presidential board repeated what was said in September 2016 in Baku: it won't be possible.
"It is clear that we have serious problems because of the sanctions. A lot of western sponsors are very skeptical to deal with FIDE," said Makropoulos. "And I don't think the sanctions can be removed."
Ilyumzhinov didn't seem much affected about losing even more power: "I spent so much money and time on chess, but I never made major decisions myself, and I never interfered with the work of commissions. Makropoulos always had this power. I was never interested in it. I am not really a president, I am a maecenas."
While Ilyumzhinov was flying back to Russia, Makropoulos was having a traditional Greek dinner with board members in a restaurant nearby the hotel. He admitted that the political battle in FIDE is inextricably linked with Russia.
Georgios Makropoulos at the Athens meeting two weeks ago. | Photo FIDE.
"I believe the other Russian officials should stop playing this little game. I understand that FIDE is very important for Russia. But they should understand also that nobody from our group, who has supported Kirsan for all these years, will sacrifice FIDE just to keep the good relations with some of the officials. They should understand that it's time to have a change here."