BISHOPS, BUDDHISM, AND BRUTALITY ; INSIDE THE BIZARRE WORLD OF KALMYKIA ++ the Russian Republic's Chess- Loving Ruler Counts Chuck Norris and the Dalai Lama as Friends and Claims He Was Once Abducted by Aliens. but There Is a Darker Side to His Regime. Shaun Walker Reports ++ on the Shores of the Caspian
Walker, Shaun, The Independent (London, England)
In the full glare of the ferocious midday sun, a chubby teenage boy scoops up his plastic castle, and moves it one square forward on the giant marble chessboard carved into Elista's central square. Murmurs run through the watching crowd. The only person who doesn't adopt a horrified expression is Lenin, who remains stoic surveying the square from a pedestal.
"You idiot!" cry out three men of varying ages in unison. Sure enough, a few seconds later his metre-high castle is pole-axed by an opposing pawn, and the game is all but lost. The boy wanders away dejected, and another takes his place to challenge the victor, a youngster sporting a Barcelona football shirt.
Chess is everywhere in Kalmykia, an arid chunk of desolate steppe the size of Scotland that lies on Russia's Caspian Sea coast. The fetish is largely down to Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, an eccentric millionaire with a taste for sharp suits and fast cars, who has ruled the isolated republic for almost 15 years. And since 1998, when Mr Ilyumzhinov added the presidency of the World Chess Federation (FIDE) to his portfolio, the former schoolboy champion has turned his region into a chess mecca.
Despite crippling poverty and unemployment in the republic, which is one of the poorest of Russia's regions, $50m ([pound]25m) was found to build a "City Chess" complex on the outskirts of Elista, and compulsory chess lessons for every child over six were introduced in all Kalmyk schools.
But last year his ultimate chess fantasy became reality. Veselin Topalov, FIDE's champion, and the classical champion, Vladimir Kramnik, went head to head in a match that ended the divide in international chess and created a single world champion for the first time since 1993, the year Mr Ilyumzhinov came to power. The match was played in Elista, although sadly the "City Chess" complex wasn't up to the job and yet another arena had to be built. Elista is a dilapidated but pleasant city, filled with cottages and five- storey Khrushchev-era apartment blocks, the windows covered in silver foil to keep out the ferocious sun. But out of the capital, life is hard. Farming is still the major source of income, despite the difficulties of rearing livestock in almost-desert conditions. Incomes are as low as $50 per month and unemployment is rampant.
Mr Ilyumzhinov doesn't share these financial problems. At Elista's weed-strewn airport, the only two planes are the presidential jet and a rusty, 32-seater Yak-40 jet that meanders to Moscow three times a week. And once on the ground, he has a fleet of Rolls-Royces.
He made his money in murky circumstances during the wild early 1990s, and seems to have got richer during his time as leader of Kalmykia. Opposition figures say this additional wealth is the result of a corruption scheme, where companies taking advantage of Kalmykia's tax haven status in the 1990s made payments into Mr Ilyumzhinov's personal account. He denies the allegations.
The Kalmyk leader has great faith in the predictions of an elderly Bulgarian fortune-teller named Vanga, who apparently foretold his presidencies of both FIDE and Kalmykia. He counts among his friends Chuck Norris, the Dalai Lama and the late Saddam Hussein, whom he met several times in an attempt to bring the World Chess Championships to Baghdad.
Mr Ilyumzhinov's office set three interview dates but cancelled them all at the last minute. As a substitute, it provided a copy of his 1998 autobiography, The President's Crown of Thorns, a strange mix of cod philosophy and stream-of-consciousness reminiscences. One chapter is entitled "Without me, the people are incomplete". Another is charmingly headed "It only takes two weeks to have a man killed". Among the stranger claims of Mr Ilyumzhinov is his insistence that he was abducted by aliens in September 1997.
"I was taken from my apartment in Moscow to this spaceship," he said in a recent television interview. …