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Wednesday, November 18, 1998 Published at 20:58 GMT

World: Europe

After Chechnya, Kalmykia?

Mr Ilyumzhinov: Not ruling out independence

By regional analyst Malcolm Haslett:

The colourful leader of the small, mainly Buddhist republic of Kalmykia in southern Russia, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, has threatened to sever financial ties with Russia because he has not received any federal funds for months.

Mr Ilyumzhinov, a multi-millionaire who has been dogged by more than his fair share of controversy, made it clear he was not just about to declare unilateral independence.

But neither did he rule it out in the future.

[ image: Star attraction: Kalmykia wanted Maradona]
Star attraction: Kalmykia wanted Maradona
His immediate intention, he said in an interview on Russian television's ORT channel, was to take Kalmykia's budget outside that of the federal government.

He implied this would not change very much, since Kalmykia was receiving nothing from Moscow in any case.

In a sense that is true.

Quite a number of regions within Russia have, through necessity, taken more and more control over their own financial affairs since August, when the national economy was plunged into crisis.

But Mr Ilyumzhinov's declaration is the clearest defiance yet of the central authorities.

And the Kalmyk president's strange and controversial background has raised some further questions about his motives.

Twin passions: Chess and football

Mr Ilymzhinov was a flamboyant but relatively unknown local financier before winning the Kalmyk presidency in the 1993 election with an overwhelming 65% majority against two opponents.

At the time he was only 31 years old and had become rich by playing the markets in the newly capitalist Russia.

He was an outspoken supporter of President Boris Yeltsin. And his enthusiasm for chess allowed him to gain election as president of the International Chess Federation (FIDE).

Mr Ilyumzhinov is undoubtedly popular with many locals. His patronage has taken the local soccer team, Uralan Elista, into the top half of the Russian premier division - despite the city's small population.

The team even at one stage talked of signing the famous Argentinian player Maradona.

Foe stabbed to death

But in recent years he has been accused by political opponents and humans rights activists of a number of abuses.

His construction of the prestigious "Chess City" complex near his capital Elista, for example, was said by his critics to have been completed with the foreign funds earmarked for industrial and agricultural development.

He has also fallen out with members of the local press. And when the body of his main critic, newspaper editor Larissa Yudina, was found with multiple stab wounds in a pond near Chess City, many eyebrows were raised.

They were raised even further when federal police arrested two of Mr Ilyumzhinov's staff on suspicion of the murder.

Allegations of embezzlement

Mr Ilyumzhinov has, however, denied any connection with the murder. And though there was a call for a boycott of the Chess Olympiad at Elista this summer, the Kalmyk president persuaded almost all the world's chess organisations to attend.

But there must now be a suspicion that one of Mr Ilyumzhinov's motives in challenging the federal authorities may be to ward off the threat of interference by federal accountants into his financial dealings.

Allegations have been made that at least part of the Kalmyk president's wealth has come from embezzling state funds.

Mr Ilyumzhinov has made his challenge to Moscow at a time when central power is weak.

But some observers wonder if he may not, in this case, have stuck his neck out just a bit too far.

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