Kirsan Ilyumzhinov garners an awful lot of press for the president of the World Chess Federation. But he's not exactly your average chess buff. From 1993 to 2010, he was president of the Russian republic of Kalmykia and became known for his efforts to transform the remote Buddhist region into an international chess mecca as well as for his frank comments about an encounter with aliens he claims to have had in 1997. (He was also widely criticized for his autocratic rule over the impoverished republic.)
Since stepping down as president of Kalmykia to focus full time on chess, he has kept busy. In 2011, he met and played a game with Muammar al-Qaddafi, shortly before the Libyan leader's downfall. In late April, he had an audience with embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He also hobnobbed with Bill Clinton, Mikhail Gorbachev, Jimmy Carter, and more at a meeting of Nobel Peace Prize laureates in Chicago last month.
Ilyumzhinov spoke with Foreign Policy by phone on May 7 from Dharamsala, India, where he had just paid a visit to the Dalai Lama. He discussed his meeting with Assad, his thoughts on Russian President Vladimir Putin, his alien encounter, and his vision for a world ruled by chess geniuses.
Foreign Policy: What did you speak about with the Dalai Lama?
Kirsan Ilyumzhinov: I met with his holiness the Dalai Lama in his residence, and we discussed Buddhism, how Buddhism developed in Russia. In 2004, the Dalai Lama visited Kalmykia. At that time, I was the president of the Kalmyk Republic, and I invited him to make some prayers when we started building a new Buddhist temple in Elista, the capital. He prayed, and after 11 months I helped build it. It is now the biggest Buddhist temple in Europe. The Dalai Lama said he wants to visit Kalmykia because it is the biggest Buddhist republic in Europe. We talked about when it would be possible for him to visit.
Also, we discussed chess. Tomorrow [May 8], I will meet with the head of the Tibetan schools here in Dharamsala, and I will sign an agreement under which they will introduce chess in Tibetan schools. I will help send chessboards and computer programs and organize some seminars for training.
FP: I heard that during your meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, you had mentioned the possibility of the Dalai Lama and other Nobel Peace Prize laureates visiting Syria for a peace conference. Did you talk about this with his holiness today?
KI: No. We did not discuss this.
FP: But are you still trying to bring Nobel Peace Prize laureates to Syria?
KI: Yes, when I meet with President Assad in Damascus, we discussed the situation inside Syria. He said to me that he strongly follows the peace plan of former United Nations General Secretary Kofi Annan and he doesn't want a war and he wants only peace -- and he said to me that if both sides follow the plan there will be peace. He said to me that it would be a good idea to organize a summit of Nobel Peace Prize laureates and some famous people who fight for peace around the world. He said to me that he was very worried that some newspapers and TV channels in Western countries only show members of the opposition. He wants to show the situation from both sides. He said to me that he's going to invite not only journalists but fighters for peace.
He also said to me that chess is a good weapon for diplomacy and could be a weapon for peace.
FP: Did you play chess with him?
KI: No, because there was only a very small chessboard in the palace. But he told me he loves chess and he has played chess since he studied in Britain. Now he plays with the computer. He said to me that he supports a program for chess in schools.
FP: Because of your meeting with President Assad and last year with Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya, there has been some speculation about whether you are in fact working on behalf of the Russian government. Did you communicate with Moscow about either of these trips?
KI: No. I am independent. I came to Syria from Chicago where I took part in a conference of Nobel Peace Prize laureates. From Chicago, I went to Damascus. The first point was to meet with the [Syrian] National Chess Federation. Two years ago, I visited and we created a program for chess in schools and to create chess clubs. The second point was to meet the president of Syria. I didn't receive any letters or signs from Russian leaders. I visited Syria as president of the [World] Chess Federation. I did not discuss my visit with Russian leaders. After my visit, I did not discuss it with Russian leaders because I went straight to India to meet with chess players and his holiness the Dalai Lama.