Ilyumzhinov, Kirsan Nikolayevich

(1962– )
   President of the Republic of Kalmykiya. Born to returnees of the 1943 deportation of the Kalmyks, Ilyumzhinov grew up in Elista, Kalmykiya, under modest circumstances. At the age of 14, he became the republic’s chess champion. He is also a former Kalmyk boxing champion. Before studying Japanese language and culture at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), Ilyumzhinov worked as a mechanic in Elista and served in the military.
   Quick to embrace late Soviet capitalism in 1989, he worked as a manager at the Soviet-Japanese company Liko-Radugab and founded the SUN Corporation in Moscow. During those years, he became one of Russia’s new elite, managing dozens of companies and making millions in the free-market economy created by Anatoly Chubais and Boris Yeltsin’s economic advisors. Concurrently, his political star was rising. In 1990 he was elected as a deputy of the Russian parliament for Kalmykiya, becoming a member of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) Supreme Soviet in 1991. In 1993, he was elected president of Kalmykiya. He actively marketed his wealth in the presidential campaign, using the slogan “a wealthy president is a safeguard against corruption.” He also promised $100 for every voter and a mobile phone for every shepherd (reflecting a populist attempt to glean support from the traditionalist sector of society). Once in office, he moved quickly to consolidate his power by abolishing parliament and the existing constitution as Soviet vestiges. Both institutions, once restored, served Ilyumzhinov’s interests. The Steppe Code, based on 17th-century Kalmyk practices, all but guaranteed him autocratic power in the region. He also instituted a seven-year term for the presidency. Ilyumzhinov consciously models his system of rule on the Chinese, Korean, and Singaporean “Asian model” of governance, which values stability and collective responsibility over individualism. He proudly proclaimed an “economic dictatorship” over Kalmykiya in order to turn the country into a “second Kuwait.” He makes decisions on minutiae other regional governors would quickly delegate to subordinates or local assemblies. His public statements have often veered to the eccentric. He claims to have been transported to a distant galaxy aboard a UFO in 1997, and claims to communicate telepathically with his own nation and other peoples of the Russian Federation. He is also a strong supporter of the pan-ethnic ideology of Eurasianism, viewing Kalmykiya as a central node in the “world spirit.” Ilyumzhinov’s autobiography was published in 1998, entitled The President’s Crown of Thorns; chapter titles include “Without Me the People Are Incomplete,” “I Become a Millionaire,” and “It Only Takes Two Weeks to Have a Man Killed.” Since becoming president, he has encouraged a mild cult of personality within the republic through tireless self-promotion and lavish expenditures on pet projects, particularly relating to the game of chess.
   In 1995, Ilyumzhinov engineered his election as head of the Fédération Internationale des Échecs (FIDE), the governing body of world chess. For the 1998 Chess Olympiad, Ilyumzhinov built the $50 million Chess City on the outskirts of Elista. The avant-garde village hosts national and international chess events, as well as visiting dignitaries, including the Dalai Lama in 2004. Ilyumzhinov has made chess a mandatory subject for three years of primary schooling, resulting in a number of international champions in the sport. He has also funded a spree of religious buildings, including Buddhist temples, Islamic mosques, and even a church for the republic’s solitary practicing Roman Catholic. Although few Kalmyks express open discontent with his soft authoritarian rule, Ilyumzhinov’s popularity has waned in the republic. In his last election, he only commanded a plurality of votes.
   His professional ties to those implicated in the 1998 murder of Kalmykiya’s leading opposition journalist, Larisa Yudina, have sullied his reputation as a munificent despot.

Historical Dictionary of the Russian Federation. . 2010.

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