“It’s a scandal that they’re trying to flee to Asia to circumvent the sanctions that the European Chess Union has rightly imposed on the Russian Chess Federation,” said Malcolm Pein when he took part in a panel discussion at the end of February invited by the Berlin Chess Association. By “they” the International Master and FIDE Delegate of the English Chess Federation means the Russian Chess Federation RCF, which is leaving the European Chess Union ECU to join the Asian Chess Federation ACF. The change is to take place on May 1, 2023. However, the step is logical, says Pein, after all, Russian President Vladimir Putin is looking for support in the East.
Since the beginning of the war of aggression against Ukraine, sanctions have been imposed on Russian and Belarusian athletes. With the “escape” under the umbrella of the Asian federation, those previously banned should be able to take part in tournaments organized by the ACF again. The European chess world is duped, but not only this latest Russian dodge move is discussed on the international podium in Berlin. Pein points out that the game of chess has always reflected geopolitics. The world chess association FIDE has become an organization in which hardly any commission can really exert any influence. It is now run by a very small number of people – and they are not necessarily neutral.
The Dane Peter Heine Nielsen wanted to become FIDE Vice President in order to change things in the association
Peter Heine Nielsen agrees. The grandmaster and coach of world chess champion Magnus Carlsen ran for vice president of FIDE last year. Not because he really wanted to be in this position, but because he thought something had to be different: “It’s not a job I’d particularly like to have,” says Nielsen. “I much prefer doing what I’m doing now. But I think it shows how wrong I think the chess world is at the moment.” But Nielsen knew his chances were slim.
Whoever has money has influence
Malcolm Pein refers to the costs that a promising application requires: you have to plan around two million euros for it. Such sums are not a problem for the Russian officials: there are enough sponsors who spare no expense. If necessary, the Russian state itself can step in.
Malcolm Pein experienced this in 2018 during his own application for the vice presidency of FIDE: A Russian news agency said at the time that one should counteract it with big guns. Exactly that was implemented with Arkady Dvorkovich, a long-standing adviser to the Russian President. “He had a private plane at his disposal and a huge staff,” Pein recalls of Dvorkovich’s appearance at the Chess Olympiad in Batumi, Georgia, where the presidential election was held. The Russian threw a party for delegates at a nightclub the night before the election. “No one who has been to Batumi will forget this famous party,” says Pein. “I wasn’t allowed in, but I heard there were ‘mermaids’ by the pool.”
The British chess official is concerned about the influence of Russia in international chess
In the fight for the FIDE Presidency the next day, Dvorkovich easily prevailed against his Ukrainian competitor and was confirmed in his office as FIDE President last year. Under his leadership, FIDE has officially yielded to pressure from Europe, and since the beginning of the war in Ukraine it has parted with some important Russian donors. However, Russia continues to exert influence on the international chess organization, as suggested, for example, by FIDE’s dealings with Iran.
Russia closes ranks with Iran
Iranian athletes repeatedly refuse to compete with Israeli athletes. FIDE should have intervened long ago and sanctioned the Iranian Chess Federation, but the World Chess Federation is not acting. Iran is an important ally of Russia, not only as a supplier of drones in the war against Ukraine. Shohreh Bayat, FIDE Master and International Arbitrator, is from Iran. After a dispute over her hijab at the 2020 World Women’s Chess Championship, she fears for her safety and freedom back home. She has therefore been living in England for two years, has applied for asylum there and works for the local chess association.
A T-shirt with the inscription “Women Life Freedom” that she wore when she was a referee in early 2023 brought her into conflict with FIDE: Arkady Dvorkovich himself asked her not to wear the T-shirt. Bayat then wore a T-shirt in the national colors of Ukraine. After that it became part of the International Arbitrators’ Commission of FIDE [FIDE Arbiter’s Comission, Anm.d.Red.] excluded. However, she did not violate any regulations – after all, there are no dress codes for chess referees. “In 2022, FIDE awarded me the prize for the best female arbiter in Europe,” says Bayat. “So it’s quite ironic that they removed me as a member of the refereeing committee.”
Although Dvorkovich told the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung”, Bayat can be used – but it won’t. She was offered to work in Iran on the Chess Federation’s Women’s Commission, among officials who threaten her there. For Bayat, however, that is unthinkable. She raises her voice consciously for human rights and she is skeptical about FIDE’s offers: “I’m not sure if I would work for FIDE again because first I have to make sure that it’s a decent organization”, she says.
What’s next in international chess?
There is a lot to criticize in international chess – but only a few voices can be heard. Why? “It depends on the quality of the chess officials in each country and what their priorities are,” Malcolm Pein surmises. He points out that in many associations most employees work on a voluntary basis. “When someone’s doing a job and they’re not getting paid, it’s a lot harder to exercise any kind of control or criticism,” he says.
Since 2018 he is President of FIDE: Arkady Dvorkovich
Whoever will chair FIDE after Arkady Dvorkovich, it will also be about posts, salaries and other benefits that will also find their grateful buyers in Europe: Because everyone is used to it by now. Malcolm Pein is under no illusions: “And all of this can be used as – let’s call it an incentive – to vote for a certain person,” he says. “And that’s politics.”
Sport and politics can hardly be separated
But Pein calls for a clear demarcation between sport and politics. And it must also be clear where this limit lies. Broad international support is needed in order to eventually improve conditions in international chess and to reduce Russia’s influence – and not only in chess.
It is hoped, for example, that the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris will also have a signal effect and that the ban on Russia will remain in place as long as the war in Ukraine lasts. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has spoken out explicitly against the participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes as long as there is war. This puts her in a confrontation with IOC President Thomas Bach, who takes a different position in this regard. And Bach is – as the example of the Asian Chess Federation shows – not the only one.