Qaddafi’s Latest Gambit, a Chess Match
Serge Karaganov, Dean of the HSE Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs, comments on Kirsan Ilyumzhinov’s visit to Libya.
John F. Burns
TRIPOLI, Libya — If not exactly a chess match for the ages, it was at least a deliciously emblematic contest that caught something of the curious, and often deeply eccentric, world of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, a man who has been known to want to pitch a tent for his comfort in Manhattan’s Central Park, along with a host of other behaviors unusual in a national leader.
Captured on Libyan state television, the match was played on Sunday in Tripoli between Colonel Qaddafi and the president of the World Chess Federation, a Russian politician and one-time goat-and-sheep-herder by the name of Kirsan Ilyumzhinov.
No slouch himself when it comes to eccentricity, Mr. Ilyumzhinov, who since 1995 has been head of the chess organization, known as FIDE, has a reputation at home, beyond his activity as a world-traveling promoter of chess, as a believer in cosmic aliens, and as a disciple of the view, as he told The New York Times in an interview in 2010, that chess is “a gift from extraterrestrial civilizations.”
Chess has had more than its fair share of eccentrics — Bobby Fischer comes to mind — but few matches have been played in more improbable circumstances.
Among the foreign press troupe currently quartered in a five-star Tripoli hotel, the buzzword as the tape was played and replayed on TV sets in the lobby and garden patio on Monday was “wacko.” Or to put it more gently: Here was the Libyan leader, nearly three months into a NATO bombing campaign that lately has been focused unapologetically on killing him, sitting down calmly and pensively for a game that prizes, above all, the ability of exponents to concentrate — to put aside the mundane distractions of life and ponder the complexities on the board before them.
Yet perhaps it wasn’t so wacko after all. Pawn, rook, bishop, king — the tactical possibilities numberless, the art of survival in beleaguered circumstances paramount, the sheer rapture of outwitting an opponent from an inferior position, all of this has made chess a favored game down the ages for emperors and monarchs, for courtiers and commanders, for all those who play for the highest stakes on life’s big board.
And, make no mistake, Colonel Qaddafi is now in the tightest of corners — the wit and cunning that have enabled him to remain supreme for 42 years in the bearpit of Arab politics is being tested as never before, and the challenge involves nothing less than triumph or death. One wrong move, or one right one, or at least a series of good or bad choices, could spell the difference between an improbable survival and an ignominious end.
And indeed, the images from the Sunday afternoon match showed a man who appeared to be enjoying himself, or at least was capable of mild amusement. Colonel Qaddafi looked sombre enough as he arrived for the encounter, in oversize sunglasses, and dressed in his favored tribal garb, with a Bedouin blanket thrown over his shoulders. It was not clear from the TV recording — and perhaps it was not meant to be — who won the match, whether Colonel Qaddafi playing the white pieces, or Mr. Ilyumzhinov with the gold.
The Libyan leader took his time, finger to his forehead, as he contemplated his moves on the ornate wooden chessboard; the Russian was swifter and more casual. But the body language, the laughter and the handshakes at the end suggested there had been an outcome, and that Colonel Qaddafi had not found it too foreboding.
In any case, he walked away with a fold-up chess set proffered as a gift by his guest, perhaps something to pass the hours of the fugitive’s existence he is now obliged to live under the NATO bombs. (A day later, Mr. Ilyumzhinov told Russia’s Interfax news agency the match “ended in a draw. I offered the drawn game. After all it is impolite to win when you’re a guest.”)
People in Tripoli who claim inside knowledge of the matter have been saying for the past two or three weeks that Colonel Qaddafi, with his Bab al-Aziziya command compound and its network of underground bunkers and tunnels obliterated by NATO bombs and missiles, and even his tented desert camp outside the capital reduced to ashes, has been forced to move almost hour by hour, seeking sanctuary in hospitals, schools, museums and the homes of trusted regime insiders.
One common story has him abandoning his armored Mercedes-Benz limousines for much humbler transport, much in the style of Saddam Hussein before the first Gulf war, when the Iraqi leader was said to have ridden about Baghdad in the back of a battered taxi.
None of this was able to be confirmed, at least for a Western reporter, but the chess match did offer a few hints. For one thing, the room in which the match was played appeared to have been hastily, and only sparsely, furnished, with a scattering of sofas and chairs and little on the walls but a large black-and-white photograph of Colonel Qaddafi wearing a military uniform, in favored heroic pose. Ornate — the Qaddafi style before the Libyan revolt began in February — the setting was not.
The flat-screen television set — a fixture in every TV appearance the Libyan leader has made in recent weeks, always set to the state TV channel, apparently to demonstrate that the video of the colonel meeting and greeting visitors is contemporary, and not pulled from an archive — sat propped awkwardly atop a marble-topped table, tilted back against the wall, college-dorm style, as if nobody had time to nail a bracket into the wall.
For the rest, the meeting provided armchair analysts rich opportunities for speculation. Had Mr. Ilyumzhinov come to Tripoli as a mediator, with a proposal from the Russian government that could lure Colonel Qaddafi into abandoning power and fleeing into exile? The Russian Interfax news agency hinted at something of the kind when it said that Colonel Qaddafi had used the meeting to reaffirm that he had no intention of leaving Libya, the official position that is restated emphatically here at every turn.
My colleague Andrew Kramer, from the Moscow bureau of The New York Times, notes in a background message that Mr. Ilyumzhinov hails from a poor region of nomadic herders on the steppes of southern Russia, Kalmykia, an upbringing that would give him more than a little in common with Colonel Qaddafi, who was born into a family of dirt-poor Bedouin tribesmen hardened by centuries of survival as goat and camel herders in the Libyan desert.*
Like Colonel Qaddafi, the Russian rose from humble circumstances to become president of Kalmykia from 1993 to 2010. Again, like the Libyan leader, who is facing indictment by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, and has a long history of presiding over a government with a record of “disappearing,” torturing and murdering its opponents, Mr. Ilyumzhinov has his own dark past. As Mr. Kramer recalled, a journalist in Kalmykia who criticized the leader was assassinated in 1998, though Mr. Ilyunzhinov denied any involvement.
On top of this, Mr. Ilyunzhinov has been a frequent visitor to Libya, and organized a chess championship here in 2004. “Though dismissed as a nut in Russia and indeed by his critics in the chess community because of his continual talk of aliens, he does have a long relationship with Colonel Qaddafi,” Mr. Kramer says.
The Russian’s ostensible reason for coming to Tripoli was to thank the Qaddafi government for promoting chess in Libyan schools, a mission that might have been deferred for more propitious times. So, odd couple that they made on Sunday, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that the two chess players had reasons of state, as well as recreational purposes, for their match.
That, at least, was the conclusion of Gazeta.ru, a Russian online newspaper with ties to President Dmitri A. Medvedev, who announced after a meeting with President Obama and other NATO leaders in Deauville, France, 10 days ago that Russia was backing NATO’s call for Colonel Qaddafi to go into exile. “The head of FIDE is fulfilling a role as an intermediary in the resolution of the conflict in Libya,” the newspaper said.
That leads to the expert opinion of Sergei A. Karaganov, dean of the department of international economics and foreign affairs at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, who told Mr. Kramer in a telephone interview that Mr. Ilyumzhinov “is a publicity hound and could have gone to Tripoli without official backing just hoping to get in the news.”
All the same, Mr. Karganov did not rule out the possibility that Mr. Ilyumzhinov was playing a backdoor role in relaying Russia’s message to Colonel Qaddafi that he should step down. Mr. Karaganov also said: “It is plausible, because they are both of the same stripe. Mr. Ilyumzhinov is a soft and scaled-down version of Qaddafi himself. He is known for various and bizarre endeavors.”
*Readers might also be interested to know that Kalmykia is the only Buddhist region in Europe. The people are descendants on the Mongols, who, according to legend, were left behind when most of their fellows retreated to western Asia in the late 18th century. According to an account in “The Lonely Planet Guide to Russia,” in 1771, under pressure from encroaching Russian and German settlers, the Kalmyks planned to evacuate the region en masse on what their religion led them to believe would be an auspicious winter’s night. When the night came, however, “the ice on the Volga was not strong enough for those on the western bank to cross the river, so 20,000 out of 160,000 families stayed,” and Kalmykia was eventually absorbed by Russia.