Russia's black knight makes a global move

Phil Reeves in Moscow reports on Chess City - a capital adventurer's new Utopia - Chess City
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The Independent Online
BEHIND the electric gates, high walls and immense curtains that enclose the apricot-coloured mansion which serves as his Moscow residence, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov is busy refining his latest sales pitch.

He is building the equivalent of the Vatican, he announces with the cheerful air of a man imagining his own headlines rolling off the presses. His tiny new society will be a state-within-a-state.

It will have its own parliament, cabinet, prime minister and chief executive. But the focus of this brave new world is not church but sport, the intellectual battle for superiority on a chequered board. The place will be called Chess City.

Hard selling is a required skill for the 35-year-old Mr Ilyumzhinov as the obscure patch of the planet over which he rules needs all the help it can get. Until now "spin" referred to wool, a principal Soviet-era earner for the impoverished Kalmykia, one of Russia's autonomous republics. But its boyish-looking boss seems well-versed in its modern meaning.

His job is to attract global attention, and thus investment, for a semi- arid triangle-shaped territory on the steppes of southern Russia between the Volga and the Don at the top end of the Caspian Sea. With only 321,000 mostly poor inhabitants (outnumbered ten to one by sheep), the task would deter any ordinary leader.

However, Mr Ilyumzhinov is not ordinary. He has the determination of a pit bull (a popular animal in his fiefdom, where dog fights regularly pull a crowd), boundless ambition, a scornful disregard for ideology (he is both an admirer of Bill Clinton and a close friend of Saddam Hussein), and a tremendous flair for publicity. It was a combination of these characteristics that recently underlay Kal-mykia's failed efforts to buy Diego Maradona for its football team, Uralon.

Chess is taken even more seriously than soccer. Mr Ilyumzhinov has issued a decree stating that all schoolchildren would study chess, according it the same status in the classroom as mathematics. He maintains that since then juvenile crime has plummeted. "Chess develops the brain, makes you industrious and diligent and able to foresee your next step", he says. Even issues of faith are overshadowed by the game in Russia's only Buddhist republic (the Kalmyks originate from central Mongolia). As one presidential aide put it: "No one gets anywhere ... unless they can play chess."

Ruthless determination is the hallmark of Mr Ilyumzhinov's curriculum vitae. A millionaire in his late twenties, with an import-export business in the last Soviet years, he won the republic's presidency in 1993 after illegally promising $100 to every voter. When he wanted to dump his legislature, he paid it to dissolve itself, ushering in one that gave him still greater powers. Opposition opinion was stifled.

The federal authorities in Moscow paid little attention. Why should they? The President was a Yeltsin loyalist, whose electorate could always be trusted, as one official wryly put it, to "vote accurately" when it came to choosing the occupant of the Kremlin.

When stories of high-living and fleets of Rolls-Royces reached their ears, tax inspectors arrived to probe his income, which he declared as $1.1m. He invited the television cameras in, entertained them generously, and gave them a prize stallion. They left without a story.

It is this street wisdom that Mr Ilyumzhinov is drawing on to pursue his dream of building a self-governing city as the forum for international chess contests. He has a missionary's zeal, being a former champion of the republic and president of the World Chess Federation, which, though there has been a split, retains its claim to be the sport's governing body. Last year, he hosted the world championship match between Gata Kamsky and Anatoly Karpov; this September, the Olympiad contest will be held in Kalmykia.

Construction of Chess City has already begun. Luxury houses are beginning to sprout on a dusty site in south-eastern Elista, the republic's modest capital. The plans include three luxury hotels, an aquacentre, homes for 5,000 people, a chess academy and a grand central square. The promotional literature foresees a Utopia - a "cradle of highest achievements of human genius".

The city, whilst still subject to republican and federal law, will have a 10-person parliament to make local laws under a "king", or mayor, and "queen", the prime minister. The president also wants it to be an economic free zone. "I want to see if it works," he says.

The development is headed by a Russian-Serb joint venture but, in the end, it is the work of a man whose creed is that of most of the ruling elite that has occupied the ruins of the Soviet Union. "I am neither communist, nor democrat. I am a capitalist," he says. In Kalmykia, that makes this particular chess fiend a king.