Argument

Russia’s Muslim Strongman Is Winning the World Cup

Ramzan Kadyrov is using sports diplomacy to bolster his image.

The Egyptian national team's star striker Mohamed Salah, left, and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov pose in Grozny, Chechnya, on June 10, ahead of the 2018 World Cup in Russia. (Karim Jaafar/AFP/Getty Images)
The Egyptian national team's star striker Mohamed Salah, left, and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov pose in Grozny, Chechnya, on June 10, ahead of the 2018 World Cup in Russia. (Karim Jaafar/AFP/Getty Images)

Russian President Vladimir Putin last week welcomed visitors, viewers, and players from around the world to an “open, hospitable, and friendly” World Cup — Russia’s first as host, and an event that Moscow is keen to leverage for diplomatic purposes. But there’s one man even more eager to take advantage of the cover of the cup — Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s strongman, a longtime sports enthusiast who is using the tournament to reach out to potential allies in North Africa and the Middle East.

Chechnya is hosting the Egyptian national team for the duration of its stay in Russia. The republic, which is situated in Russia’s North Caucasus region, has acted as a training ground and temporary base for the team as it works its way through its three group stage matches.

This newfound sporting connection between Chechnya and Egypt is the latest evidence of Kadyrov’s growing ambitions in the region and the broader Muslim world, and of his increasing use of sports to further his political interests at home and abroad — including by building direct diplomatic relations between Chechnya and foreign governments and by increasing foreign direct investment in the republic.

Shortly after the Egyptian team’s arrival in Russia, Chechen officials approached Mohamed Salah, Egypt’s star player, in his hotel room and informed him that Kadyrov was waiting for him in the lobby. Salah met with the Chechen autocrat and posed for photos with him in front of several hundred fans. The photo op was just one moment in Kadyrov’s ongoing all-out campaign to present himself as a benevolent leader — to contradict the impression created by the republic’s recent deadly crackdown on LGBTQ people — and to cultivate an image among his fellow Chechens as an influential ruler capable of befriending celebrities. In this case, he was rubbing shoulders with arguably the most popular athlete in the Muslim world.

When the Second Chechen War came to an end in 2000, the Kremlin has established an unwritten agreement with Chechnya, allowing the republic exceptional support and increased funding in exchange for loyalty and compliance. As a result, it functions as a semi-autonomous state within Russia — which Kadyrov rules over as if it were his personal fiefdom.

He rose to power in 2007, three years after the assassination of his father — Akhmad Kadyrov, who was then president of the republic — during a parade in a soccer stadium in the Chechen capital of Grozny. Ever since taking office — with support from his benefactor, Putin — Ramzan Kadyrov has maintained an iron grip over the Chechen population, reinforcing his rule through fear and intimidation: extrajudicial killings, repression of dissidents and journalists, and a well-documented purge of LGBTQ people. More than 100 men suspected of being gay were detained by the Chechen government in early 2017 and subjected to electric shocks and other harrowing acts of torture. Several were killed, while hundreds others were forced to flee and take refuge outside Russia. No perpetrators have been held accountable. And while Kadyrov denied the existence of LGBTQ people in Chechnya and shrugged off reports of a gay purge as “nonsense,” he also advocated for honor killings as a viable solution for Chechens who have gay family members.

Like many strongmen, Kadyrov is a sporting enthusiast — an interest he uses in service of his macho image and to help keep the public happy. Unsurprisingly, his favorites are soccer and mixed martial arts, two of the most popular sports in Russia, where the martial arts world in particular is deeply entangled with the gangsters who became power players amid the ruins of the Soviet Union, and whom Kadyrov relies on in part to enforce his authority.

Over the years, a long list of athletes and other celebrities have visited Chechnya at Kadyrov’s personal invitation. These include actors Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal, as well as kickboxing champion Badr Hari and former UFC champions Fabricio Werdum and Frankie Edgar — all happy to accept undisclosed fees and keep quiet about the regime’s violence and repression. Each of these visitors played a role in helping the strongman legitimize his rule and distract from the brutal aspects of his reign.

While in office, Kadyrov founded the Akhmat Fight Club and the World Fighting Championship Akhmat — an MMA gym and combat sports promotion, respectively — to cultivate the popularity of MMA within his republic. More than 5,000 people are currently enrolled in the club. Once considered a sport that contradicted the traditional values of the North Caucasus — where such fighting was culturally and religiously prohibited — Kadyrov has forcefully eroded those longstanding traditions and replaced them with a form of hypermasculinity rooted in prizefighting and has manipulated that fabricated standard of Chechen manhood for propaganda purposes. He has stationed his political allies in leadership positions within local sports governing bodies to maintain total control over the athletes. Among those appointed: Magomed “Lord” Daudov — a former separatist militant turned ally who was accused by victims of participating in the torture of LGBTQ people in Chechnya last year — as president of FC Akhmat Grozny, the capital’s soccer team. Daudov posed alongside Kadyrov and Mohamed Salah during the World Cup photo op.

During his time in power, Kadyrov has emerged not only as a political leader, but also as a face representing nearly 20 million Russian Muslims — the republic operates under sharia and is home to one of the largest mosques in Russia, known as the Heart of Chechnya. As a result, he has become a significant player in Russian politics, not only due to the scope of his power in the North Caucasus but also because he is well positioned to act as a conduit for an increasingly close relationship between Russia and Sunni Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

In 2017, he assumed the role of Putin’s Sunni Muslim envoy and travelled to Bahrain, where he met with King Hamad and “reviewed bilateral relations,” mainly through renewed economic cooperation. During his stay, Kadyrov visited with King Hamad’s sons Sheikh Nasser and Sheikh Khalid, both of whom are heavily involved in the sports affairs of the kingdom. Ultimately, Kadyrov’s trip to Bahrain paved the way for the kingdom to improve its economic relations with both Chechnya and Russia overall. He has also cultivated ties with the United Arab Emirates, including de facto ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, who set up the Zayed Fund in Chechnya to fund local ventures in 2017. These encounters paved the way for his current efforts to build a stronger relationship with Egypt.

Kadyrov has also involved himself in the Syrian conflict, having dispatched a battalion of military police to battle opposition forces and helped rebuild a mosque in Aleppo. By cozying up to various Middle Eastern regimes, he has become an indispensable messenger for the Kremlin. He has also managed to simultaneously secure foreign investment for his own republic, which minimizes its dependence on Moscow and entrenches its autonomy.

The World Cup has been a public relations victory for Kadyrov. Salah, the Egyptian football association, and FIFA have come under criticism from Western media outlets for allowing themselves to be used as propaganda tools — but not in a way that seems to have stuck. The Egyptian government continues to defend its decision to allow the team to stay in Grozny. Human rights organizations have sounded alarms over FIFA’s decision to authorize Chechnya as a base for the team — but the world’s largest sports organization continues to allow the dictator to use its event as a platform for political propaganda.

Egypt’s time in the running lasted a total of five days, as the team lost its opening match against Uruguay before suffering a 3-1 defeat against Russia, ruling out advancement to the knockout stage of the tournament. But even its poor performances became an opportunity for Kadyrov, in this case to display his loyalty to the Kremlin.

“First of all, the Chechens cheered for the Russian national team,” he wrote on Telegram after Egypt’s second losing match.

Karim Zidan was born and raised in Cairo, Egypt. He works as an associate editor for BloodyElbow.com, and as a contributor to SBNation, Sports on Earth, Vocativ, Open Democracy, and Bleacher Report.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola