Risky Game in a Russian Republic Millionaire President of Kalmykia Caught in Swirl over Death of Biggest Critic

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Look anywhere in Elista and you see Kirsan Ilyumzhinov's face. He beams on billboards alongside Buddhist and Christian leaders. His white-fur hat adorns calendars. His portrait hangs in offices, reminiscent of Soviet leaders.

But these days it's hard to actually find Mr. Ilyumzhinov, the president of Kalmykia, a semiautonomous republic on Russia's steppes north of the Caspian Sea. He has been keeping a low profile since his most outspoken critic, newspaper editor Larisa Yudina, was killed last month after investigating alleged abuses of official funds.

Hundreds of miles away from Moscow, many of Russia's semiautonomous regions do what they like. Tatarstan and Bashkortostan join Kalmykia in defiantly trying to gain control over their own finances, regardless of what Moscow thinks. Some analysts say this tendency will deepen with time as the central government frays at the edges.

Outrage over the murder has flared up in Moscow, which normally leaves its 21 ethnic republics alone.

"We must find the murderers," declared President Boris Yeltsin, keen to get to the bottom of a potential financial scandal. State law-enforcement officials say it was a political contract murder. The Russian parliament has called for a new probe into Ilyumzhinov's finances, which have already been investigated six times by Moscow.

In such an obscure part of the world as Kalmykia, a journalist's murder might ordinarily have attracted little outside attention. But Ilyumzhinov is chief of the World Chess Federation and a self- proclaimed candidate for Russia's 2000 presidential elections. And suspicions were aroused when two of the four suspects arrested turned out to be his close former aides.

A self-proclaimed millionaire, Kalmykia's president presides over this republic of Buddhist descendants of Genghis Khan with a strong cult of personality. He came to power in 1993 promising to provide a cell phone to every shepherd and to make Kalmykia a second Kuwait. Neither has been realized.

This personalization of power is not atypical in the region. In nearby Turkmenistan, for example, President Saparmurad Niyazov's portrait adorns many public buildings in the capital, Ashkhabad, and is visible on the high-rise office of the national airline.

Many of the people here, known as Kalmyks, applaud Ilyumzhinov's efforts to promote their ancient culture and beautify the capital, Elista, with huge stone sculptures. …