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LONDON (Reuters) - The stepping down of a remote Russian regional leader who once claimed to have been abducted by aliens has set off an unexpected battle for the world's most important chess job.
Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, president of the impoverished Buddhist region of Kalmykia, is better known outside Russia as head of the World Chess Federation (FIDE), one of the world's largest sports organizations.
Accused in the West of corruption and rights violations, Ilyumzhinov said this week he would not seek a new term as Kalmykia's president when his current tenure expires in October.
His announcement has set off moves by his FIDE opponents to oust Ilyumzhinov from the chess governing body, where the Kalmyk leader has long been accused of corruption.
"The key issue is reputation. There has been a total loss of reputation," said Garry Kasparov, a former world chess champion who is leading the FIDE campaign.
"We are facing a very formidable enemy. But we believe that chess deserves better," Kasparov, also a fierce Kremlin critic, told reporters at an old chess venue in central London.
Watched keenly by chess fans around the world, the intrigue also offers a glimpse into the murky world of Russian politics where Ilyumzhinov's departure is seen as part of Kremlin efforts to oust 1990s-era leaders from the political scene.
Kasparov's allies have nominated former world chess champion Anatoly Karpov -- Kasparov's one-time rival across the board -- to replace Ilyumzhinov in a FIDE election due later this month.
Ilyumzhinov, 48, has denied any wrongdoing.
Known for his passion for chess, he has built Chess City in his native Kalmykia, a barren region on the Caspian Sea, and proposed making chess compulsory in schools around the world.
He told Russian TV this year he had an encounter with aliens wearing yellow spacesuits in 1997 and visited their spaceship.
Speaking in Moscow on Wednesday, he gave little insight into his decision to step down but urged politicians to pay more attention to the subject of aliens.
"I am not the only politician who is talking about it," he was quoted as saying by Interfax news agency. "I am acting in a straightforward way so that other people, publications, journalists could talk about it openly."
Kasparov, a prominent opposition leader in Russia, said that aside from some eccentricities, Ilyumzhinov ran FIDE as a personal fiefdom, allowing cronyism and corruption.
Kasparov and his allies -- including English grandmaster Nigel Short and other European titlists -- say chess has lost its prestige as a result of Ilyumzhinov's rule, with companies now refusing to sponsor a sport seen as mired in corruption.
"It's a matter of integrity. We have lost integrity in the chess world with the current leadership," said Short. "We are up against people who are fighting for -- I wouldn't say their lives -- I would say, for their livelihoods."
Additional reporting by Steve Gutterman in Moscow; Editing by Mark Heinrich