Dvorkovich In Tight Spot As FIDE President
FIDE President Arkady Dvorkovich. Photo: FIDE.

Dvorkovich In Tight Spot As FIDE President

| 146 | Chess Politics

Russia's warfare in Ukraine has left Arkady Dvorkovich, a former Russian deputy prime minister, in a precarious situation. Now 24 days into the war, some are calling for the FIDE president to resign while others continue to support him. Although Dvorkovich himself has declined to comment, has been in touch with other FIDE officials as well as prominent critics about Dvorkovich's position and about FIDE's policy regarding Russian and Belarusian players.

FIDE Council decisions

The FIDE Council, a strategic and oversight body with law-making and executive functions inside the International Chess Federation, has held two online meetings since the start of the war. The first, relatively brief meeting happened on February 25, a day after Russia invaded Ukraine, when it was decided that the FIDE Olympiad won't take place in Russia this summer. It was already clear that many countries would otherwise be boycotting the event. In the second meeting on March 15, the Olympiad was granted to Chennai, India. (Meanwhile, the World Team Championship, scheduled for April in Israel, has been postponed until November.)

The way FIDE communicated the decision to move the Olympiad from Russia received criticism. Saying that the organization expressed its grave concern regarding "the current rapidly deteriorating geopolitical situation," without calling it an invasion or a war and without condemning Russia for its military action, could imply Russian influence on FIDE, led by a former Russian politician.

On February 27, however, FIDE did officially condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine and took a number of measures against Russia and Belarus, including a ban on hosting official events and displaying their flags at FIDE-rated events. Two weeks later, the national teams of Russia and Belarus were banned from participation in official FIDE tournaments.

In doing so, the International Chess Federation followed recommendations from the International Olympic Committee (IOC), but not completely. In a statement published on February 28, the IOC spoke of a breach of the Olympic Truce by the Russian government and recommended that Russian and Belarusian athletes and officials not be allowed to participate in or be invited to international competitions. FIDE, however, continues to allow individual players from these countries to participate under the FIDE flag (and has made it easier for players to temporarily start playing under the FIDE flag by introducing a simplified procedure).

In an official statement, FIDE Director General Emil Sutovsky called the decision "balanced and fair." A few days later, in an online panel discussion organized by the Association of Chess Professionals (ACP), Sutovsky elaborated, arguing that most of the Russian top players are against the war, as became clear from their open letter to Putin and that banning them from competition would be unfair.

Sutovsky pointed out that this policy is similar to that in tennis. A statement released jointly by the International Tennis Federation (ITF), the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), and the four Grand Slam tournaments, stipulates that Russian and Belarusian players can still compete in their events, but not under their flags. The ITF did suspend the Russian and Belarusian teams from all international team competitions.

The ACP panel discussion.

Full ban on players?

Two chess grandmasters who have been quite vocal on Twitter in their criticism of FIDE took part in the panel discussion: GM Jacob Aagaard, a Danish-born Scottish chess grandmaster and co-owner of the chess publishing house Quality Chess, and GM Peter Heine Nielsen, the main second of World Champion Magnus Carlsen and the husband of GM Viktorija Cmilyte, who is the speaker of the parliament of Lithuania and also a member of the country's Security Council.

"There cannot be, in this situation, Russian sports heroes," Aagaard argued during the panel discussion, advocating a ban on Russian and Belarusian players in world championship cycle and team events. "Russia cannot have a huge status in international society."

It’s often said that one should not mix sports with politics, but Aagaard countered: "Genocide is not politics."

The question about banning individual players is especially relevant for the FIDE Candidates Tournament, to be held in May of this year in Madrid, Spain. At the moment, two Russian players have qualified: GM Sergey Karjakin, as the runner-up of the 2021 FIDE World Cup, and GM Ian Nepomniachtchi, as the runner-up of the 2021 World Championship.

Karjakin, who has continuously expressed strong support for Russia's president Vladimir Putin on social media, is currently under investigation by the FIDE Ethics Commission and could lose his right to play. Sutovsky stated that a decision by the Ethics Commission might come before the end of March.

Update March 22, 2022: A few days after this story was published, Karjakin got banned for six months from tournament play and now cannot play the Candidates, although he has 21 days to appeal.

Update May 6, 2022: The ban was appealed by the Russian Chess Federation but the appeal was dismissed.

Nepomniachtchi, one of the 44 chess players who signed the aforementioned open letter to Putin voicing firm opposition to the war in Ukraine and expressing solidarity with the people of Ukraine, will be allowed to play under the FIDE flag.

While Sutovsky doesn't see a reason why Nepomniachtchi can't play, Aagaard pointed out that the top Russian GM is sponsored by Sima-Land, Russia's largest wholesale company owned by businessman Andrey Simanovsky, who is also the president of the Sverdovsk Chess Federation. Sima-Land, which also sponsored the 2020-2021 FIDE Candidates Tournament, has positioned itself clearly in support of Putin with a flash-mob held on March 2 by 5,000 employees.

Aagaard on banning Russian players, and potentially Nepomniachtchi as well: "My issue is with the world championship cycle and team events primarily. I am comfortable with Russians asking to play under the FIDE flag participating in other events. It's not about punishing individuals, not at all; it's about not assisting the Russian internal propaganda machine in any possible way."

It's about not assisting the Russian internal propaganda machine in any possible way.
—GM Jacob Aagaard

GM Nigel Short, a FIDE vice president and former world championship contender, agrees with Sutovsky and argues: "To prohibit individual people from participation is quite close to racism. Unless the federation itself is in breach of the FIDE charter, you're simply discriminating against people because of an accident at birth."


Nielsen goes even further, saying that over the past decades the chess world has encountered "the most obvious sports-washing that has been seen" with "no other sports organization as linked to Russia as FIDE."

A few days after the war started, FIDE terminated all existing sponsorship agreements with Russian and Belarusian sanctioned and state-controlled companies and said that it would not enter into new sponsorship agreements with such companies. Two such sponsor agreements were mentioned by Nielsen as examples of sports-washing: with the state-owned Russian energy giant Gazprom and Russia's state nuclear energy corporation Rosatom.

Gazprom, which also lost its sponsorship agreement with UEFA on February 28, is the world's largest publicly listed natural gas company. It has often been accused of being a political and economical weapon of Russia, using the supply and price of natural gas to gain control over Europe, while also being involved in environmental controversies such as oil drilling in the Arctic. Gazprom was a sponsor of prestigious chess events such as the 2020 FIDE Online Chess Olympiad and the 2021 FIDE World Cup.

Rosatom, controversial for its nuclear power plant in Astravets, Belarus, that was built just 40 kilometers (25 miles) east of the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, sponsored the 2019 FIDE Confederation Cup for Players with Disabilities and the 2021 FIDE World Cup.

Many Russian sponsors that had agreements with FIDE were already involved in long-standing sponsor deals with the Russian Chess Federation. Another example is PhosAgro, a large Russian producer of phosphate-based fertilizers.

Then-PhosAgro CEO Andrey Guryev Jr., who handed Carlsen the trophy at the closing ceremony in Dubai in November, is also one of several members of the Russian Chess Federation's Board of Trustees who have been put under EU sanctions—and has now resigned from his lead position at PhosAgro. Other members of the board sanctioned are Sergei Shoigu, the Russian minister of defense, and Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin press secretary. FIDE has not provided a statement or taken any action toward the Russian Chess Federation following these sanctions. 

Russian money

There is no clear-cut answer to the question as to what extent FIDE has depended on Russian money, but it seems less the case than a few years ago. According to FIDE's most recently audited financial statements, which are from 2020, the International Chess Federation received 1.47 million euros in donations and sponsorship in that year. The four biggest donators, for 93 percent of donations in 2020, were Russian: Russian Railways, Norilsk Nickel, Safmar Group JSC, and PJSC Interregional Distribution Grid Company of Center and Volga Region.

It's important to note that the 1.47 million in donations were about half of the total income (2.98 million euros) in 2020. The budget for 2022, approved by the General Assembly on December 28, 2021, mentions a total budget of 12.8 million euros of which 2.6 million come from sponsorship and donations—now only one-fifth of the total budget.

The biggest sources of income are FIDE's official events such as the world championships and Candidates tournaments, which are expected to yield 8.5 million euros. At least part of this revenue has become less certain now that Russian sponsors won't be involved.

Donations to FIDE 2019 2020
Donations to FIDE 2019-2020. Except for "other donations" and OCP S.A. (a Moroccan state-owned phosphate rock miner), all donors are Russian. 

In May 2018, a few months before Dvorkovich took office, FIDE was in dire straits when its Swiss bank account was frozen because the then-incumbent president Kirsan Ilyumzhinov had appeared on a sanctions list of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. This time, FIDE doesn't seem to be running such risk despite having accounts with two banks that have been sanctioned by the U.S., namely Sberbank and Otkrytie.

FIDE informed that these assets, holding rubles only, have not been frozen: "The Otkrytie bank account was an administrative account for the expenses related to the Moscow office which, following the FIDE Council decision taken on February 27, will be closed. The one at Sberbank is used for the payment of salaries of Russia-based staff and will be kept."

However, the close ties between Russia and FIDE have not been just financial, argues Nielsen. An example he gives is a message (not accessible at the time of this writing) posted on August 13, 2021, on the FIDE website saying that Putin "greeted the participants and organizers of the FIDE Online Olympiad 2021." Another example is the presence of a Russian official as high as Peskov in New York during the 2016 Carlsen-Karjakin world championship.

In recent years, FIDE has hosted a large number of its top events in Russia. Examples are the 2018 and 2019 World Rapid and Blitz Chess Championships (Saint Petersburg and Moscow), the 2020-2021 Candidates Tournament (Yekaterinburg), the 2019 Women’s Candidates Tournament (Kazan), the 2019 and 2021 FIDE World Cups (Khanty-Mansiysk and Sochi 2021), and the 2021 Women's FIDE World Cup (Sochi).

"In the chess world we kind of gambled that Russia would be soft, and they turned out to be incredibly hard," said Nielsen, pointing out that also showed a Gazprom logo in its broadcast of the Online Olympiad, a cooperation with FIDE. "You could argue this was a reasonable thing to do: to hope to put Russia on the right path, but obviously this has completely failed," said the Danish grandmaster. "I think we are all guilty and have given a lot of credibility to a lot of these people. That has to change. I think we have to cut our ties to Russia."

I think we are all guilty and have given a lot of credibility to a lot of these people. That has to change.
—GM Peter Heine Nielsen

Magnus Carlsen Peter Heine Nielsen
Peter Heine Nielsen (left) with Magnus Carlsen at the 2018 Sinquefield Cup. Photo: Mike Klein/

Short says this process has already started: "There's a small silver lining to this appalling crisis in that, I think, there is a readjustment, a rebalancing of the power within FIDE. I think we have been influenced too much by Russia, and some of these things are good for the general health of the organization."

Conflicting statements

The above encapsulation reflects the complicated position FIDE finds itself in during the war in Ukraine. Several members of the FIDE Council seem intent to cut Russian ties and initially, FIDE reacted fast and went further than many critics expected. At the same time, things cannot happen overnight when there has been a long-standing affiliation with the Russian political elite, going back to the start of the reign of the previous FIDE president Ilyumzhinov in 1995.

Centrally placed in this affair is, of course, Dvorkovich. Short, in a phone call from Kimberley, South Africa, aptly described the situation the FIDE President is in right now: "He's being attacked in the West for being too Russian and attacked in Russia for being not Russian enough."

[Dvorkovich] is being attacked in the West for being too Russian and attacked in Russia for being not Russian enough.
—GM Nigel Short

Dvorkovich, the son of international chess arbiter Vladimir Dvorkovich, was a top politician in Russia for a decade and served as the assistant to former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev. Just before becoming FIDE president in the summer of 2018, Dvorkovich was the chairman of the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russian Organizing Committee.

There are obvious ties with the Kremlin, but the question is how close these ties are. Short: "Is he driving Russian policy at the moment? Most certainly not. He is in a very difficult position personally. He's being squeezed on all sides."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Dvorkovich himself has been rather silent over the last 24 days. While the FIDE Council has announced multiple statements and decisions, an official message from the FIDE President about the war in Ukraine and the ramifications for the chess world has not appeared on the FIDE website.

Arkady Dvorkovich
Arkady Dvorkovich, who will turn 50 on March 26. Photo: Maria Emelianova/

A remarkable piece appeared on March 14 on the website of Mother Jones, an American magazine that focuses on news, commentary, and investigative reporting. Based on 36 short interviews with personalities from chess, the article stood out for Dvorkovich's remarks, the first he made since the start of the war.

To the relief of many in the chess world, the head of FIDE voiced his opposition to the war, becoming one of the very few, or only, former senior Kremlin officials to openly criticize it.

"Wars are the worst things one might face in life…including this war. My thoughts are with Ukrainian civilians. Wars do not just kill priceless lives. Wars kill hopes and aspirations, freeze or destroy relationships and connections."

Notably, Dvorkovich used the word "war" shortly after the Russian parliament had approved a law that punishes spreading "false information" with up to 15 years in prison, with the Kremlin avoiding the word "war" and instead speaking of a "special military operation."

As the chairman of the Skolkovo Foundation, which supports a scientific and technological center for the development and commercialization of advanced technologies, Dvorkovich issued a statement on March 15 that was of a completely different nature:

"I, like all post-war children, was brought up on patriotism: in memory of those who died during the Great Patriotic War and on hatred of Nazism. I am sincerely proud of the courage of our soldiers, who at all times defended their homeland and freedom.

"[The] the main thing is that a strong peace and a more just order will eventually be established on our planet, in which there is no place for either Nazism or the dominance of some countries over others, Dvorkovich said. "Today, Russia continues to live under harsh but senseless sanctions. But we will rise to this challenge. We are ready to respond with technological breakthroughs and our own development. It has always been so."

Dvorkovich's Skolkovo statement was of a much more nationalistic nature.
Dvorkovich's Skolkovo statement was of a much more nationalistic nature.

Notwithstanding this much more nationalistic statement, Dvorkovich was strongly criticized a day later by the United Russia Party—the largest political party in Russia which supports Putin—that advocated "immediate dismissal in disgrace" of Dvorkovich from the post of head of the Skolkovo Foundation because of his condemnation of the actions of the Russian army.

This announcement came from Andrey Turchak, Secretary of the General Council of United Russia, who said: "He has made his choice. This is nothing but the very national betrayal, the behavior of the fifth column, which the president spoke about today."

Two days later, on March 18, the news came that Dvorkovich had resigned from his post at the Skolkovo Foundation.

Should Dvorkovich resign?

There are many examples of sports bodies with Russian officials. In fact, on the boards of more than half of the 40 biggest sports federations, you can find a Russian representative, according to research from the Dutch newspaper NRC.

Voluntarily or not, in just three cases so far have officials stepped down: Igor Levitin, chairman of the European Table Tennis Union (ETTU); Alisher Usmanov, president of the International Fencing Federation (FIE); and Arkady Rotenberg, member of the Executive Committee of the International Judo Federation (IJF).

The question can be raised whether it would be better for FIDE if Dvorkovich resigns as its president. However, apart from the Ukrainian Chess Federation and some Ukrainian top players, who have called for a full ban on Russia and who desire new FIDE leadership, there seems to be little support for this drastic measure. Two FIDE officials spoke to are still supporting their president.

Short: "I want to stress that Arkady is the best FIDE president we've had in decades. There has been a transformation in the organization and financially we are in a much better position than before, despite suffering through this appalling pandemic which has curtailed a lot of our activities. But there have been many internal reforms which people on the outside don't see which make the running of the organization much better."

I want to stress that Arkady is the best FIDE president we've had in decades.
—GM Nigel Short

FIDE's managing director Dana Reizniece-Ozola, on a phone call with from Paris, said: "Arkady is there as a president and understands the importance of transparency and objectivity and that the right decisions have to be made. It is very difficult for all of us to understand his position fully."

"The fact alone that he is the president can raise questions," acknowledged Reizniece-Ozola, but she noted that FIDE's decisions about Russian and Belarusian players and the termination of Russian sponsor deals have demonstrated that "FIDE has shown strong integrity under Mr. Dvorkovich."

Theodoros Tsorbatzoglou, the secretary of the European Chess Union, said during the ACP panel discussion: "It's a very difficult situation for him. I think at this moment, taking into account that in three months we will have a FIDE General Assembly that can discuss all these matters, we must give him a little bit of space to decide what he wants to do."

Nielsen is in favor not just of Dvorkovich resigning but of a change of FIDE leadership in general. "We should have a fresh start as a sport," he said. "With strong companies such as PlayMagnus and, and India on the rise in the chess world, it would be possible. The chess world without Russian control is necessary."

Aagaard did not directly answer the question of whether Dvorkovich should resign but instead wrote to in an email: "If his national identity is more important than leading FIDE, I would expect him to find trouble in August. At the moment he is probably hoping that the Russian players will eliminate themselves and solve this dilemma for him. But what happens if Nepomniachtchi wins the Candidates, or if Ethics does not disqualify Karjakin? FIDE will be in crisis."

Correction: an earlier version of this article erroneously stated that Gazprom was a sponsor of the FIDE Grand Swiss; it wasn't. 

See also:

Peter Doggers

Peter Doggers joined a chess club a month before turning 15 and still plays for it. He used to be an active tournament player and holds two IM norms.

Peter has a Master of Arts degree in Dutch Language & Literature. He briefly worked at New in Chess, then as a Dutch teacher and then in a project for improving safety and security in Amsterdam schools.

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