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Iron fist: Sport as a means to an end in the North Caucasus

As the stories of a Chechen champion and a Dagestani businessman show, sport in the North Caucasus — and Russia in general — is foremost a political tool.

Karim Zidan
4 August 2016
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August 2008: Ramzan Kadyrov drives Olympic wrestlers Buivasar Saitiev and Islambek Aliyev through Grozny. (c) Said Gutsiev / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.At a glance, Buvaisar Saitiev and Ziyavudin Magomedov bear little resemblance. The former is rugged, rough-hewn, and renowned as the greatest freestyle wrestler in Olympic history. The latter — a tall, handsome, man who happens to be one of the richest men in Russia. They both, however, share a common Caucasus heritage, as well as a delicate position in the intricate tapestry that is sports culture in the Russian Federation.

There is a particular design at work in Russian sports culture — a marked trajectory that begins with combat sports excellence and culminates in political influence. 

The prestige associated with combat sports in the North Caucasus is rooted in the region’s love for martial arts that flourished here over the last century, as well as overwhelming pride in the fighting spirit of their highlander ancestors. It sets you on a violent path that nevertheless pivots away from extremist alternatives. Those who rigidly adhere to this path enjoy the ultimate form of social mobility in Dagestan. And it is where Saitiev and Magomedov found common ground.

Kadyrov’s sports socialisation 

Shortly after the end of the Second Chechen War, renowned Olympic hero Buvaisar Saitiev and his younger brother, fellow Olympic medalist Adam Saitiev, were summoned by newly-minted Chechen president Akhmad Kadyrov. The brothers were given little information about the reasons for their rushed meeting with the former rebel, and unbeknownst to them, Kadyrov had already planned their respective futures

In an attempt to turn away from further warfare with Russia, Akhmad Kadyrov constructed a plan to divert Chechen youth from radical fundamentalism. And to find an alternative outlet for troubled young people’s aggression, Kadyrov enlisted the help of the Saitiev brothers. They were to be part of his social policy — glorified mascots who would represent the positive impact of sports socialisation.

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February 2016: Ramzan Kadyrov speaks as he attends celebrations marking Defenders of the Fatherland Day in Chechnya's capital Grozny. (c) Musa Sadulayev / AP / Press Association Images. All rights reserved.While Kadyrov was unable to enlist both brothers for his plan — Adam was far more interested in religious piety than in fame and flattery — Buvaisar was all he needed to set the wheels in motion. The wrestling great was transported from the impoverished backwaters of Khasavyurt, Dagestan, to the lavish residences of the Chechen political elite. 

When Kadyrov’s son, Ramzan, took over for his assassinated father, Buvaisar became the loyal advisor to a controversial leader with a series of human rights atrocities to his name

Acquiring Saitiev was essential for the Chechen government. The first Chechen to win a gold medal at the Olympics, he was widely considered to be the greatest freestyle wrestler in the history of the sport. The remarkable achievements he compiled during that 14-year career, which included six World Championships, three Olympic gold medals, six European titles, and four Russian championships, ensured that Saitiev was idolised in the North Caucasus. During a time when Chechens were considered terrorists and thugs, Saitiev was proof that they were capable athletes. 

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January 2016: Three-time Olympic champion Buivasar Saitiev speaks in support of Ramzan Kadyrov at a unity rally in Grozny. (c) Said Tsarnaev / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.Until recently, Saitiev’s role remained that of a figurehead. He spoke publicly about the benefits of physical activity, negotiated increased funding for various sports in Chechnya and promoted the values of sports socialisation as an alternative to extremism. The intention was to divert physical aggression to the confines of physical competitions. Sport was to become the flagbearer for the North Caucasus, instead of the decade of fundamentalism that superseded it. In 2016, however, Saitiev decided to run as a Dagestani representative for the State Duma under the loyalist United Russia party.

While this appeared to be a natural transition for Saitiev, it was part of a much larger ambition to win back the long-lost town of Khasavyurt. 

The struggle for Khasavyurt 

Located on the border with Chechnya, Khasavyurt is a town that has deep-rooted fundamentalist sentiment and a history of tension between Chechens and the Avar ethnic group in Dagestan.

During the Second World War, Khasavyurt belonged to Chechnya until Soviet Leader Joseph Stalin expelled the Chechens from their homeland in 1944. The town became a part of Dagestan and remains so to this day. A portion of Chechens returned to their hometown decades later and now make up 28% of the local population, the second largest ethnic group in the city. 

Khasavyurt, Dagestan's second city, is starting to acquire a reputation for civil resistance. CC-SA 4.0 Zastara / WikimediaCommons. Some rights reserved.The city is also home to one of the largest Salafi Muslim groups in Russia. During the conflict of the 1990s, Khasavyurt was a place where insurgents rested and sought shelter. It also supplied the rebels with a fair portion of the soldiers who fought against the Russian Federation. By 2016, however, local authorities cracked down severely on the local community and shut down a mosque that allegedly spread Salafist ideology. City officials believed the mosque was used as a recruiting ground for ISIS. According to official records, 900 Dagestanis have left to go fight for the Islamic State in Syria. Unofficially, the number is believed to be closer to 4,000. 

More recently, Khasavyurt became the site of an ongoing political struggle to determine who will control the second largest city in Dagestan. 

This is where Buvaisar Saitiev comes into play. 

Wrestling legend Saitiev represents an opportunity for Kadyrov to seize control of a region that was once under Chechen rule

The wrestling legend represents an opportunity for Kadyrov to seize control of a region that was once under Chechen rule. Saitiev, an ethnic Chechen born in Khasavyurt, is a near-perfect candidate to run in that particular district. His background as a national hero will likely garner support from the region’s youth, while support from his current employer Kadyrov will ensure that the Chechen contingent within the city will vote for him. A win would mean that a member of Kadyrov’s inner circle will have authority over a city that does not belong to Chechnya.

“The town of Khasavyurt, which borders Chechnya, is important to Kadyrov because he considers it part of his sphere of influence and seems to want to extend this influence more deeply into Dagestan,” Caucasus expert and researcher Karena Avedissian told me. “Men under Kadyrov's command have already made several forays into Dagestan — including pursuing of man critical of Kadyrov online earlier this year — and the town, which mainly comprises Avars, Chechens, and Kumyks, is home to most of Dagestan's illegal business activities, so there are many powerful interests at play there.” 

The two players involved in the political struggle are former mayor of Khasavyurt, Sagidpasha Umanakhov, who is currently Dagestan’s minister for transport and communications, and Kadyrov. The tension between Kadyrov and Umakhanov is particularly palpable, as the former mayor hinted that the Chechen leader was behind an assassination attempt on his life. For Kadyrov, the goal is simple: limit Umanakhov’s power, as well as neutralise the regional People against Corruption Party (NPK) that is supported by Salafi Islamic clerics.  

Once a proud Olympic champion, Saitiev has morphed into a political tool paraded for Chechen gain — the price paid to become part of the Kadyrov’s privileged elite

“Kadyrov has been antagonistic towards longtime mayor of Khasavyurt Saigidpasha Umakhanov, an ethnic Avar, and initially wanted Saitiev to fill the position,” Karena explained. “While this didn't work out and Umakhanov was able to place another ethnic Avar in the position, it seems clear that Kadyrov is looking for someone to lobby for Chechen Republic interests within Dagestan.” 

Once a proud Olympic champion, Saitiev has morphed into a political tool paraded for Chechen gain — the price paid to become part of the Kadyrov’s privileged elite. 

Others are prepared to pay an even higher price to expand their influence.

The diminished oligarch

Unlike most Russian oligarchs, whose rather unathletic physical appearance is a direct result of their lavish lifestyles, Ziyavudin Magomedov remains surprisingly well built for a man whose profession requires no physical exertion. His secret? Regular training sessions with professional fighters employed in the fight promotion company he owns. 

Much like the resurgence of his business over the past few years, Magomedov’s hobby is unorthodox. A native of Makhachkala, Magomedov emerged as one of the most successful business tycoons from Dagestan’s capital city. He is the founder and majority shareholder of Summa Group, a private investment company with holdings in port logistics, engineering, construction, telecommunications and the oil and gas sectors.

According to Summa’s official website, the company employs more than 25,000 workers in 40 regions. Magomedov’s own personal wealth was recently estimated at $1.2 billion, which placed him on the list of the Top 200 richest men in Russia. 

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September 2015: Ziyavudin Magomedov meets with journalists and students in Makhachkala, Dagestan. (c) Vladimir Vyatkin / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.Summa Group prospered significantly during Dmitry Medvedev’s leadership. During that time, Magomedov’s net worth rose to $2.1 billion and peaked at $3 billion in 2011. Medvedev, who was interested in establishing new oligarchs and contacts loyal to him instead of Putin, offered Summa Group hefty state contracts that helped the company flourish. 

However, Putin’s return to power in 2012 brought with it significant changes for the oligarchs who benefited from Medvedev’s term as president. In an attempt to purge his government of those with questionable loyalty to him, Putin removed three of Medvedev's ministers, including chief of staff Vladislav Surkov, from their positions. 

Putin’s return to power in 2012 brought with it significant changes for the oligarchs like Magomedov, who benefited from Medvedev’s term as president

Once the ministers were removed, Putin focused on the businessmen who flourished during Medvedev's reign. This included Magomedov’s cousin Akhmed Bilalov, the former vice president of the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) and board chairman of the North Caucasus Resorts Company. He was personally reprimanded by Putin for budget overspending on one of the projects ahead of the Sochi Olympics in 2014.

This move ultimately ensured that Medvedev's political resources were irreparably weakened should he seek re-election once Putin's third term as president is complete in 2018. Magomedov’s Summa Group was one of the political casualties. His fortune had dropped to $800m by 2013. 

Ultimate fighting and Hyperloop One

In a drastic attempt to regain influence, Magomedov shifted his strategic investments to companies that fit Putin’s models of using sports as a diplomatic tool and technological advancements. He attempted to purchase a portion of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) in 2013, but, for undisclosed reasons, the deal fell through. 

Magomedov then pivoted towards another fight promotion company, Fight Nights Global, then owned by Dagestani fight promoter and manager Kamil Gadzhiev. He purchased a controlling share and began to invest heavily in the company’s development.

Magomedov was clearly emulating some of the most successful businessmen under Putin’s administration, such as Arkady and Boris Rotenberg, the billionaire brothers who have a host of sports-related investments throughout their extensive portfolios. They were once the Russian president’s judo teammates, and later purchased the SKA St. Petersburg hockey club. Boris is now co-owner of the Stroygazmantazh group, the largest construction company for gas pipelines and electrical power supply lines in the Russian Federation. 

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June 2016: Fedor Emelyanenko celebrates victory over Fabio Maldonado at Fight Nights Global 50, Sibur Arena, St Petersburg. (с) Mikhail Kireev / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.By 2016, Fight Nights, backed by Magomedov, announced that they were going to host legendary heavyweight Fedor Emelyanenko’s next fight. Emelyanenko, more commonly known by his first name in the sporting world, is renowned as the greatest mixed martial arts fighter in history, had recently returned from a stint in retirement and still remained as popular as ever. He was also an advisor to the minister of sports Vitaly Mutko and the president of the Russian MMA Union. 

Even Putin took the time to attend several of Emelyanenko's fights in Russia. On one occasion in November 2011, fans in St. Petersburg booed the president repeatedly

While Emelyanenko’s involvement in Fight Nights appeared to be nothing more than the acquisition of a talented fighter to improve ticket sales for an event, Magomedov’s show was methodically planned. 

Emelyanenko’s fight, which took place on 17 June in St Petersburg, coincided with the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF), a bi-yearly business event that features finance and business leaders from across Russia and around the globe. According to sources close to the situation, Magomedov’s overarching goal was to get Putin’s attention during the forum and strike a deal that would propel Magomedov back into high standings in Russia’s elite.

Much like the ongoing doping scandal highlights Russia’s craving for international success, sport culture is a means to an end for Putin’s government 

Though Magomedov had repeatedly invited Putin to attend Emelyanenko’s fight during the forum, his priority was to secure a meeting during the forum to sign documentation that would make Moscow a leader in technological advancement and global transportation. And he managed to do it.

In late June, 2016, Hyperloop One, an American start-up based on SpaceX CEO Elon Musk's ambitious plan for 760-mph tube-based transportation, announced a partnership with Moscow and Summa Group to explore the possibility of bringing Hyperloop to Russia. Hyperloop is currently in various stages of testing, and studies are underway to determine Hyperloop routes between Helsinki and Stockholm, which could theoretically reduce the travel time from a 17-hour ferry trip to approximately 30 minutes by tube transportation.

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A sketch of the Hyperloop capsule with passengers onboard. (c) AP / Press Association Images. All rights reserved.The meeting took place during the International Economic Conference and the papers were signed within the day. Shervin Pishevar, co-founder and executive chairman of Hyperloop One, later revealed that Putin was enthralled with the proposal, stating that “Hyperloop would fundamentally change the global economy.”

This is a predictable position for Putin to take, given that he has shown growing interest in a transport route between China and Europe through Russia. New and highly rapid transportation between these regions would strengthen Russia’s suffering economy and reassert longstanding ties between the European and Asian regions of Russia.

Magomedov is no longer a political casualty. He had successfully positioned himself as the main investor in technology that could thrust Russia back into the forefront of the global economy. He did it by combining his business savvy with, once again, using sports as a diplomatic tool.

The politics of sport 

To understand the magnitude of Saitiev and Magomedov’s respective stories is to grasp the significance of sports culture in the Russian Federation. In the North Caucasus, sport is an escape from difficult local realities. It is also a way to channel aggression without inciting mass conflict. And a way to honour one’s Caucasus heritage without donning a papakha. 

Sports in this region are not just used for entertainment purposes, but for political gain

It is important to keep in mind that sports in this region are not just used for entertainment purposes and societal concerns, but for political gain and the strategic realisation of particular ambitions.

For some in positions of power, athletes are very versatile tools used to exercise control over a population or even, as in Saitiev’s case, for a power grab in a neighbouring republic. Others, like Magomedov, view sports as ventures with hefty Return on Investment ratios. The dividends are paid out in various forms, increased profits, expanded political influence and, ultimately, presidential approval.

The Russian government is aware of the domestic benefits and international prestige reaped from sports, and are willing to go to remarkable extents to legitimize that image. An example of this is the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) investigative report that accuses Russia of a state-sponsored doping program that benefited athletes during the 2012 Summer Games in London and the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi. If proven accurate, Russian officials, including Minister of Sport Vitaly Mutko and numerous FSB agents, will have orchestrated the manipulation of countless doping samples in order to boast Russia’s success at an international setting.

The sheer willingness to engineer large-scale corruption at multiple Olympics, as well as the decision to keep most athletes in the dark, highlights the extent to which Russia is willing to achieve sports recognition. Despite the political complexities burdening the nation, diplomacy through sports remains essential to Russia’s overall goals. 

This strategic approach is also reverberated through the country’s hefty bid to host the 2018 World Cup. Despite difficult economic circumstances and sanctions imposed by the United States and other nations, Russia’s World Cup tournament is set to be the most expensive in history, with a total budget that could total $40 billion. While the price tag is sizeable one, it is a price Putin is willing to pay to ensure his nation imposes itself amongst the international elite.

Therefore, the respective trajectories of Saitiev and Magomedov are proof of the sheer power of sports culture in Russia — and how it can be used to impact politics. Though their respective ambitions and talents helped them achieve success, it was mainly due to the sports-fueled political climate they fit into being prominent in Russia.

Much like the ongoing doping scandal highlights Russia’s craving for international success, sport culture is a means to an end for Putin’s government — an opportunity to advance political interests, and a symbol of Russia’s unrelenting might.

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