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Fight Politics: Putin appoints kickboxer as acting head of Kalmykia

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A former world kickboxing champion will step into the political arena after assuming his role as the governor of the Russian republic of Kalmykia.

Batu Khasikov — nicknamed ‘Batukhan’ — assumed his new position after Russian president Vladimir Putin named him acting head on March 21. The former fighter will replace outgoing governor Alexey Orlov, who held the post since 2010.

Khasikov, 38, is a Master of Sport in combat sambo and hand-to-hand fighting and took part in more than 200 contests throughout his amateur and professional career. He won several national and world kickboxing titles, including the WKA, W5, and WAKO titles. He also helped co-found Russian MMA promotion Fight Nights and fought in the organization until his retirement in 2014.

Khasikov began his political career as a representative of the Kalmykia region in the Federation Council (Russian parliament’s upper chamber) in 2012 and served until 2014. In July 2017, he accepted a role as an adviser to the head of the Federal Agency for Youth Affairs. The fighter has since been promoted to the head of a Russia’s predominantly-Buddhist republic.

Kalmykia, a remote region on the southern steppes near the Caspian Sea, has a population of approximately 290,000. Tibetan Buddhism is the traditional and most popular religion among the Kalmyks, who make up 57% of the republic’s population. Kalmykia was led for 17 years by Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, a chess-loving authoritarian who served from 1993 to 2010. Ilyumzhinov claimed to have been abducted by aliens during the 1990s and later became the head of the World Chess Federation (FIDE) until being suspended for violating the organization’s code of ethics in 2018. Ilyumzhinov was added to a list of U.S. sanctions in November 2015 for allegedly “assisting or acting on behalf of” the Syrian government.

Khasikov’s appointment as the governor of Kalmykia is the latest example of Putin’s soft spot for combat sports and how he uses martial arts as a tool for diplomacy. Back in 2010, Putin appointed Russian MMA legend Fedor Emelianenko as a staff member on the Council of Physical Fitness and Sports, replacing Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Fedor later became the head of the Russian MMA Union and remains on good terms with the president. Putin also awarded several former fighters and martial arts celebrities with Russian citizenship, including Roy Jones Jr., Jeff Monson and Steven Seagal.

In January 2016, Putin honored the Russian national judo team’s Italian head coach Ezio Gamba by granting him Russian citizenship.Putin even suggested that Gamba’s success in Russia has helped strengthen ties between Russian and Italy.

”Today, I spoke over the telephone with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, for quite a while, on working matters, but I also told him: ‘you know, your citizen, Ezio Gamba, works here in Russia, he brought our team to a wonderful result in 2012, to excellent success at the Olympic games, to the best result in the history of Olympic games,” Putin said.

The Russian president has historically used combat sports and martial arts as a tool to enhance his image as a healthy and masculine leader. A blackbelt in judo, Putin has authored a book on the sport, Judo: History, Theory, Practice (2004), and referred to judo as his “first love.” He has repeatedly been shown landing hip tosses on state TV while dressed in an immaculate judogi, which emphasizes his physical fitness despite his age.

While Khasikov’s appointment as the governor of Kalmykia may be beneficial for the republic in due time, it is the product of a Russian government that considers martial arts achievements as political merit.

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