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Legendary freestyle wrestler wins seat in Russia’s State Duma — why this matters

Arguably the greatest freestyle wrestler of all time has officially transitioned to Russian politics.

Three-time Olympic gold medalist Buvaisar Saitiev was elected to the 7th State Duma of the Russian Federation following the controversial elections on September 18. The Chechen native will represent Khasavyurt for the ‘United Russia’ pro-Kremlin majority party, which won with over 54% of the vote.

Saitiev, the first Chechen native to win a gold medal at the Olympics, is considered a national hero and arguably the greatest freestyle wrestler in history. His career span between 1994 to 2008 and included six World Championships, three Olympic gold medals, six European titles, and four Russian championships. He was also on the coaching staff for the Russian wrestling team ahead of the London Games in 2012 and was present in Rio de Janeiro with the national wrestling team.

The retired athlete works as an advisor to Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov and is the president of the Chechen wrestling federation. HIs decision to run as a representative of the Dagestani region of Khasavyurt is particularly interesting given the region’s history. The district borders with Chechnya and was once home to Chechens before mass deportations during Stalin’s reign altered the geopolitics of the region in 1944. The return of Chechens to their homeland many years later brought about tension with the Avar ethnic group in Dagestan. Saitiev, a Chechen native who grew up in Dagestan and is now idolized by Caucasus youth, is believed to be the perfect candidate for stability.

It is also a strategy to bring the long-lost district back under Chechen control. Saitiev, a member of Kadyrov’s inner circle, will have control over a city that does not belong to the Chechen Republic. Given that Kadyrov has shown interest in expanding his scope of influence into Dagestan, Saitiev’s electoral victory is also a win for Chechnya’s ruler. Expect Chechen interest to dominate the political scene in the city of Khasavyurt.

Saitiev is certainly not an anomaly in politics. Far too many athletes transition to political life following retirement, and they mostly represent the United Russia loyalist party and their interests. Aleksandr Karelin, considered by many as the greatest Greco-Roman wrestler of all time, was elected to the Duma in 2007 as a representative for Stavropol Krai. The three-time Olympic gold medalist with 887-2 career record is also on the Duma’s committee on international affairs.

Artur Taymazov, the most decorated Uzbek Olympian in history, also won a seat in the State Duma elections this year.

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