The conflict in Syria is taking on worrying new international dimensions after Turkey’s shoot-down of a Russian warplane that allegedly strayed into its airspace on November 24.
But Syria’s civil war hasn’t just been fought in the air and on the ground. There’s an international financial dimension to the conflict, as well.
Countries around the world — including the US — have been applying a dragnet of sanctions to cut off combatants’ access to the global economy. The end goal is to wear down that party’s ability to continue the war and create an incentive for a peace deal.
The US once again entered Syria’s economic battlefield on November 25, sanctioning a Syrian businessman accused of facilitating oil transactions between ISIS and the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
At the same time, the US sanctioned people who helped the Assad regime evade existing sanctions through shell companies or laundering operations in places like Belize and Russia.
Those sanctioned include one of Russia’s strangest and most compelling political figures — a loyalist of President Vladimir Putin whose career arc gives a particularly vivid sense of the kind of people who have thrived under the former KGB agent’s system.
According to his US Treasury Department designation, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, who was first elected president of Russia’s Kalmyk Republic in 1993 at the age of 31, is being put on the sanctions list for “materially assisting and acting for or on behalf of the Government of Syria” and the Central Bank of Syria. He’s also had ties to a known Assad regime-connected financier since 1998, according to Treasury.
Ilyumzhinov’s personal history makes it less than surprising that he wound up under US sanctions. He’s always been in close proximity to some controversial or morally dubious figures, albeit in ways that sometimes had a strange whiff of idealism about them.
President of the World Chess Federation since 1995, Ilyumzhinov, who is an accomplished player himself, has tried to spread the game’s reach and appeal in some questionable ways. He attempted to broker the holding of a championship match in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. According to The Independent, the late Iraqi dictator was a personal friend (as is the American actor Chuck Norris).
And here’s Ilyumzhinov playing chess with Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011:
Ilyumzhinov was also president of the Kalmyk Republic, a predominantly Buddhist region along Russia’s Caspian Sea coastline, from 1993 to 2010. According to a 2006 New Yorker profile, Ilyumzhinov ruled the obscure Russian republic as a kind of absolute monarch, with billboards in the area depicting him “on horseback or next to various people he regards as peers — Vladimir Putin, the Dalai Lama, the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II.”
“Everything here comes from my image,” Ilyumzhinov told The New Yorker’s Michael Specter, who noted the leader’s distaste for democratic norms and his near-total indifference towards corruption.
Ilyumzhinov’s career combines megalomania and financial chicanery, neither of which are unusual traits in Russian politics. As Specter notes, Ilyumzhinov made most of his money through a series of mysterious investments amid the chaos immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union. It’s unknown exactly how much the presumed multimillionaire actually has.
If there’s one thing that really sets Ilyumzhinov apart, it’s his belief in extraterrestrials, and their impact on both his own life and human civilisation more generally.
Ilyumzhinov has often claimed that he was abducted by aliens in 1997, at which point he had already been president of the Kalmyk Republic for four years. This claim, which only pertains to Ilyumzinov’s personal experiences, looks modest compared to his assertion during a 2011 interview with The Independent that aliens had a role in the invention of the very game of chess.
Ilyumzhinov is flamboyant, but he isn’t crazy. As Specter recounts in the New Yorker, Ilyumzhinov had often clashed with the government in Moscow throughout the 1990s: The Kalmyk Republic is geographically close to separatist-minded Chechnya, and Ilyumzhinov had once flirted with the idea of turning the republic into an international tax haven. But Ilyumzhinov got on Putin’s good side relatively quickly, allying with the Russian president in the early 2000s. Putin had banned the direct election of regional political leaders, fearing that regional autonomy could lead to Russia’s fracturing. Ilyumzhinov realised that Putin’s support meant Moscow would continue to renominate him for the Kalmyk presidency.
In return, the partnership won Putin the obedience of a wealthy international sports bureaucrat with political influence in a restive part of the country and an apparent willingness to transact with suspect regimes.
It’s the latter trait that’s landed Ilyumzhinov on the US sanctions list. People like him have allowed both Putin and Assad to thrive, and to implement policies that have destabilized large sections of both the Middle East and Eastern Europe.
Not all of Putin and Assad’s cronies are chess-master alien conspiracy theorists — but Ilyumzhinov is a less unusual figure than he might appear. On November 25, the US Treasury also designated nine other entities and individuals accused of using the international financial system to exacerbate Syria’s devastating civil war, which has killed an estimated 250,000 people and displaced around 12 million more.
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