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Opinion | Khabib Nurmagomedov — the next head of Daghestan?

6 December 2021
Illustration: Mariam Nikuradze/OC Media.

The Kremlin appears to be sending signals that they are considering UFC megastar Khabib Nurmagomedov as a possible future head of Daghestan. But if this comes to pass, the star fighter may find himself at odds with Chechnya head Ramzan Kadyrov.

In September, Daghestan-born former UFC champion Khabib Nurmagomedov met with the First Deputy Chief of Staff to President Vladimir Putin. Nurmagomedov posted a photo taken at the meeting with Sergei Kirienko on his Instagram page, but made no comment on what the meeting may have been about.

There is a chance that the meeting concerned martial arts — after all, Sergey Kirienko holds a 2nd dan in aikido. But it is unlikely that sports were the only topic of discussion, especially if one takes into account that Kiriyenko oversees elections at all levels in the Russian Federation. Instead, some observers have speculated that the Kremlin may be mulling the idea of Nurmagamedov becoming the next head of Daghestan — which, when all the evidence is considered, is not all a far-fetched idea. 

In the autumn of 2020, at the peak of his popularity, Khabib Nurmagomedov announced his retirement from mixed martial arts. He explained the decision as a desire to spend more time with his mother, who was left a widow after the sudden death of her husband Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov — who was also Khabib’s father and coach — from COVID-19.

After Khabib's decision to hang up his gloves, his popularity skyrocketed even further. 

If the Kremlin does indeed see Khabib as a possible leader of Daghestan, it is this popularity that they are seeking to harness, in an attempt to address an ongoing crisis of legitimacy for the Daghestani government. 

Melikov, who was, in effect, parachuted in from Moscow on Putin’s orders in autumn of 2020, has continuously made personnel changes in what appears to be an attempt to address some of the republic’s endemic problems of government corruption, crime, and poverty — which are some of the worst in the Russian Federation. 

But the lack of knowledge about the region we see from Daghestan’s new head, as well as his inability to do much else than simply carry out the will of the Kremlin, are only too evident. His reshuffling of bureaucrats, while vigorous, has failed to bring about any meaningful change, meanwhile, resentment among common Daghestanis continues to grow. 

The Kremlin's increased interest in Nurmagomedov after his retirement must be understood in light of this context. To great media fanfare, Nurmagomedov met with Putin within months of announcing his retirement. It was their third meeting. 

Needless to say, the administration of the President of Russia simply does not organise tête-à-tête meetings with retired athletes unless they want to discuss important issues.

If Nurmagomedov decides to take up the mantle of leadership, he would also be incredibly useful as a loyal but local head of the republic. While the first four leaders of Daghestan since independence have hailed from the republic, the last two, owing to an unresolved crisis and mistrust from Moscow, have been ethnic Russians from outside of Daghestan, hand-picked by Putin. 

A second Chechnya?

If Khabib takes up the post it’s likely he will be given nearly free rein — so long as he remains loyal to Putin. With Nurmagamedov, the Kremlin will attempt to recreate the ‘success’ of Ramzan Kadyrov, who, years ago, was given broad powers of governing Chechnya at his own discretion — with little regard for Russian law or human rights.

Indeed, despite many in Russian security forces having an axe to grind against the Chechen leader, and his horrific human rights record, his loyalty to the Kremlin has kept Kadyrov firmly in power.

There is complete confidence in the Kremlin offices that Kadyrov's project is the best thing that has happened in Russia over the past 20 years. There, he is perceived as one who, after two brutal wars, was able to turn back a tide of anti-Russian sentiment and make loyal Russian citizens of the fiercely independent Chechens — though the brutality that sustains the Kadyrov regime reveals the authenticity of such ‘loyalty’ to the Kremlin and its representatives. 

Why not, after all, use the experience of Chechnya to secure order in a neighbouring ‘unreliable’ Caucasian republic — one that, like Chechnya, for years harboured a great amount of armed resistance to Moscow’s rule. 

As for the many differences between the two republics, in Moscow, for a long time, Caucasians have been considered to be as alike as peas in a pod, with a uniform mentality of backwardness and savagery, where only strength can win respect.

Ruling the republic is no easy task, however. A head of Daghestan with a real desire to change the situation for the better cannot be envied, as he would have to deal with inter-clan and inter-ethnic tensions as well as pervasive corruption. 

If they make an offer to Nurmagomedov, he will likely agree. 

Doubtless, Nurmagamedov is surrounded by confidantes and other people whom he holds in high authority that would have much financial incentive to help steer him to accept the post. 

The biggest obstacle, towards a Kremlin project of creating a second Kadyrov out of Nurmagomedov, is the former MMA fighter himself.  Apparently a sincere and pious Muslim, he may very well be unwilling to unleash the sort of cruel and capricious dictatorship that Kadyrov has fashioned for himself in Chechnya. 

Kadyrov vs. Nurmagomedov

In May, Ramzan Kadyrov challenged Nurmagamedov to an exhibition match with a fighter from Akhmat, a Kadyrov-founded Chechen fighting club named after the leader’s late father. If Nurmagomedov accepted the challenge, Kadyrov said, his chances of winning would be ‘minimal’. The head of Chechnya also mentioned his willingness to allocate any amount of money for the event. 

Many commentators viewed the challenge as strictly confined to the sphere of athletics, with some claiming that this was Kadyrov’s way to popularise his Absolute Championship Akhmat (ACA) MMA promotion company as an alternative to the US-based UFC.

This perspective completely misses the fact that sport is often the tool of politics, especially in the case of Kadyrov’s regime.

The popularity of Nurmagomedov not only in Daghestan, but in all of the North Caucasus republics and throughout Russia, has apparently begun to irritate the Chechen strongman — who has long seen himself as the sole figure of authority in the region.

Not to mention that a political role for Nurmagemdov would also have a very direct impact on Kadyrov’s influence in Daghestan — whose reach can cross the Chechen border in large part due to an absence of charismatic and popular Daghestani politicians. 

Nurmagamedov, as head of Dagestan, threatens not only to gain the trust of the Daghestani people but also to overtake the Chechen leader in popularity and influence throughout the North Caucasus. 

Unlike Chechnya, where Kadyrov’s power and influence rest upon some of the most horrific coercion in the world, Nurmagomedov might earn respect for genuine piety and modesty — worse still, he might offer an alternative model of rule. 

Kadyrov’s challenge then should be understood as an attempt to discredit Nurmagomedov. This is why the Chechen head delivered it in such an apparently unsportsmanlike way, stressing that Nurmagamedov was a ‘UFC project’ and noting that during his athletic career the young fighter never raised the Russian or the Daghestani flags.

This latter point appeared to be directed towards Nurmagamedov’s admirers in the Kremlin, to whom Kadyrov seemed to say ‘he is not as patriotic as me, who literally adorned the entire republic with the Russian tricolour’.

The challenge then was likely little more than a provocation intended to knock Nurmagamedov off balance, to goad him into a sharp and hot-headed response. Or maybe Kadyrov thought that Nurmagomedov would even agree to the fight, and then the UFC champion — out of practice and his prime fighting years — would lose both the match and his myth of invincibility.  

Nurmagomedov didn’t fall for it. 

Responding several days later, Nurmagamdeov offered only calm words, tinged with dismissal. 

‘I didn't think it was worth reacting to’, he told reports. ‘I decided to overlook it. I, too, in my life have made different statements, both good and bad. Each person has his own opinion, let it be. 

He added that he did not see being called a ‘UFC project’ as an insult.

‘I am a UFC project and I am a UFC champion’, Nurmagomedov said.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of OC Media’s editorial board.

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