Look anywhere in Elista and you see Kirsan Ilyumzhinov's face. He beams on billboards alongside Buddhist and Christian leaders. His white-fur hat adorns calendars. His portrait hangs in offices, reminiscent of Soviet leaders.
But these days it's hard to actually find Mr. Ilyumzhinov, the president of Kalmykia, a semiautonomous republic on Russia's steppes north of the Caspian Sea. He has been keeping a low profile since his most outspoken critic, newspaper editor Larisa Yudina, was killed last month after investigating alleged abuses of official funds.
Hundreds of miles away from Moscow, many of Russia's semiautonomous regions do what they like. Tatarstan and Bashkortostan join Kalmykia in defiantly trying to gain control over their own finances, regardless of what Moscow thinks. Some analysts say this tendency will deepen with time as the central government frays at the edges.
Outrage over the murder has flared up in Moscow, which normally leaves its 21 ethnic republics alone.
"We must find the murderers," declared President Boris Yeltsin, keen to get to the bottom of a potential financial scandal. State law-enforcement officials say it was a political contract murder. The Russian parliament has called for a new probe into Ilyumzhinov's finances, which have already been investigated six times by Moscow.
In such an obscure part of the world as Kalmykia, a journalist's murder might ordinarily have attracted little outside attention. But Ilyumzhinov is chief of the World Chess Federation and a self-proclaimed candidate for Russia's 2000 presidential elections. And suspicions were aroused when two of the four suspects arrested turned out to be his close former aides.
A self-proclaimed millionaire, Kalmykia's president presides over this republic of Buddhist descendants of Genghis Khan with a strong cult of personality. He came to power in 1993 promising to provide a cell phone to every shepherd and to make Kalmykia a second Kuwait. Neither has been realized.
This personalization of power is not atypical in the region. In nearby Turkmenistan, for example, President Saparmurad Niyazov's portrait adorns many public buildings in the capital, Ashkhabad, and is visible on the high-rise office of the national airline.
Many of the people here, known as Kalmyks, applaud Ilyumzhinov's efforts to promote their ancient culture and beautify the capital, Elista, with huge stone sculptures. Some applaud his practice of locking up drunks in metal cages on the main street, to be humiliated by passersby. Others say he has gone too far.
But the mystery here is where he gets his lavish funds in a place that survives mainly on sheep raising, caviar smuggling, and handouts from Moscow. That was what Ms. Yudina - editor of the newspaper Sovietskaya Kalmykia and an activist with the liberal Yabloko Party - was investigating when she died.
After her death, Ilyumzhinov went on the defensive. His aides asserted his innocence, claiming that jealous enemies committed the murder to sully his reputation. "Our president is forceful, powerful, on the international scene. Someone does not like that," says Konstantin Maximov, the local parliamentary head and a close aide of Ilyumzhinov.
But others are dubious of the president's innocence. A recent Human Rights Watch statement reported that "it is widely believed that President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov is behind the murder."
Yudina's husband, Gennady, says her death followed years of intimidation. She had been shot at before. In 1994, authorities closed down her newspaper, forcing her to print it in Stavropol and bring the editions to Elista by car.
"Of course her death was linked to her political activities," he says. He believes that the four detained suspects "were merely pawns."
Mr. Yudina says that someone was particularly upset about his wife's investigations into offshore funds. According to Kalmyk government officials, companies from across Russia get tax breaks in return for funneling money into a special presidential fund. The fund finances the $35 million Chess City (see story, left).
While not strictly illegal under Russian law, it is a lucrative initiative that has caught the eye of federal investigators.
Yudina says that on the night of his wife's death, she went to meet a man who claimed to have information about the funds. Her body was found the next day in a pond nearby the Chess City site.
The game of chess involves outwitting an opponent, and Ilyumzhinov, a chess enthusiast, knows strategy well. So far, federal investigations have failed to jail him.
Ilyumzhinov plays his game carefully, as he indicated in a July interview with the Moscow-based news magazine Vlast.
"To win a game, it's necessary to play by your own rules," he said.