Understanding the geopolitical & ethnic conflict that led to the cancelation of ACB 59

On Friday, April 28, news emerged that Absolute Championship Berkut (ACB) 59 had been cancelled after the majority of the local talent refused to…

By: Karim Zidan | 6 years ago
Understanding the geopolitical & ethnic conflict that led to the cancelation of ACB 59
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

On Friday, April 28, news emerged that Absolute Championship Berkut (ACB) 59 had been cancelled after the majority of the local talent refused to compete on the show. Instead, the event, which was scheduled to take place in Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia, became the medium for a geopolitical tinderbox between neighbouring North Caucasus republics.

Tensions rose after ACB owner Mairbek Khasiev allegedly made disparaging comments about Ossetia’s tense history with Muslim republics like Ingushetia, which shares a border with Chechnya. The comments, which were taken to be hate speech by many, raised concerns among the local Ossetian talent featured on the show, all of whom were insulted by their new employer’s viewpoint on their history and people. According to reports, the Ossetian fighters drove to Grozny and met with Khasiev, who attempted to defuse tension. However, once it became evident that Khasiev had no intention of posting a public apology for his insults, the Ossetians refused to compete on ACB 59.

The news was first made public by OnKavKaz.com last week, though the initial report did not allude to the exact nature of the comments made by Khasiev. It was only when Ossetian-Uzbek-Russian wrestler Artur Taymazov, renowned as one of the most decorated freestyle wrestlers from the post-Soviet states, publicly condemned Khasiev’s statements and demanded a public apology on behalf of his native people, that the news began to spread to mainstream outlets.

Taymazov, who was elected to the 7th State Duma (lower parliament) of the Russian Federation representing United Russia, even went so far as to suggest that Khasiev’s comments directed at Ossetians could contribute to rising “ethnic tensions” in the region.

“First of all, I want to ask Mairbek Khasiev, on what basis does he make his statements about my people?” Taymazov said in a Facebook post. “I believe any statements that denigrate anyone on the basis of nationality is completely inadmissible in the public space. Mairbek Khasiev has to understand the degree of responsibility for his words. Can stick to any desired views, but it needs to be weighed. I think that Mairbek Khasiev should apologize. In addition, no lesser responsibility borne by those who are hiding under different nicknames, as they provoke such statements.

“Any actions contribute to increasing ethnic tensions in the North Caucasus, should be firmly rejected.”

Naturally, Taymazov’s public condemnation gained traction until the news made headlines across Russian media. According to recent reports, Khasiev referred to North Ossetians as “Iranian Jews” who live in their “dream world” with a fabricated history. Screenshots of the ACB owner’s Instagram comments began to make the rounds, which placed the promotion in an even more precarious situation.

According to the reports, Khasiev’s comments were in response to internet trolls who took aim at an Instagram post where the Chechen native posed for a picture with ACB 59 headliner Ibragim Tibilov.

♦Уважаемые друзья, вчера у меня состоялась встреча с бойцом АСВ и с отличным парнем Ибрагимом Тибиловым! Мы обсудили планы на будущее и подготовку к предстоящему турниру во Владикавказе! Также нами была затронута ситуация возникшая вокруг отморозков и провокаторов, которые уже несколько лет стабильно и с завидным постоянством оскорбляют 23 февраля память Вайнахов, а также и мою жесткую ответную реакцию! Естественно, любой уважающий себя человек независимо, от того Русский он, Осетин, Ингуш или Чеченец отреагирует на это! Прекрасно понимая всю неприятность данной ситуации, могу сказать следующее: “Я никогда не отождествлял тех или иных подлецов с каким-либо народом, и мои высказывания были адресованы именно им, и я неоднократно заявлял об этом в своих ответных комментариях”♦

A post shared by ♦️Mairbek Khasiev♦️ (@mairbek_khasiev) on

“Dear friends, yesterday I had a meeting with an ACB fighter and great guy Ibragim Tibilov! We discussed plans for the future and the preparation for the upcoming tournament in Vladikavkaz! We have also been affected by the situation created around thugs and provocateurs who have several years of stability and consistently insulted the February 23 Vainakh memory, as well as my tough response! Of course, any self-respecting person regardless of whether he is Russian, Ossetian, Ingush or Chechen will react to it! I can say the following: “I have never identified those or other crawlers with some people, and my remarks were addressed it to them, and I repeatedly stated this in its response comments”

Khasiev’s comments were later screen-capped by an Ossetian Facebook group and posted online.

ACB has not responded to a direct request for comment. However, the promotion announced the cancellation of ACB 59 on Saturday afternoon on social media. Interestingly, the statement claims that the cancelation of the event was due to circumstances beyond the promotion’s control.

“On behalf of the ACB staff, we announce that the tournament in Vladikavkaz will not take place for reasons beyond the league circumstances. The Ossetian side has decided to prohibit the tournament because of the likelihood of uncontrolled disturbances and provocations. Late in the evening on Thursday we were told that on Saturday the tournament will not take place and they proposed to move to Grozny tournament, but due to such a short time is not possible. All the fighters were paid royalties for “participation.” The ACB 59 tournament will take place later and will retain its name, so as not to create confusion with the numbering. Once we determine the date and place, we will report on this later. We apologize to the fighters and fans who have become the innocent hostages of the situation. We did everything we could to ensure that the tournament was held, but sometimes there are circumstances in which we can not change.”

To understand the extent of the controversy and why the North Ossetian contingency of fighters opted to withdraw from the tournament, we have to look back at over a century of geopolitical conflict and ethnic tension between neighbouring republics in the North Caucasus.

A History of Ethnic Violence

The conflict between Ossetians and Muslim highlander republics like the Chechens, Ingush, and Circassians dates back hundreds of years. During the 19th century, Ossetia was a key ally of Tsarist Russia in their ambition to tame the Caucasus and bring it under their complete control. The Ossetians shared the the same Eastern Orthodox Christian faith as Slavic Russians and were generally favored by the Empire when it came to North Caucasus policy. They also inhabited an area close to the Georgian Military Highway, a strategic link between Russia proper and her Transcaucasian colonies in the South. Thus, Ossetia maintained amicable relations with the Russians in exchange for protection from the neighbouring republics, the vast majority of which were Muslim and bitterly resisted their Russian invaders.

Though the Tsarist Empire fell a century later, the Soviet system that replaced it maintained a similar strategy over the North Caucasus, one that involved exploiting ethnic tension to maintain a stranglehold over the region. Tsarist Russia had conducted population transfers in the region and moved in Russian Cossack settlers (many of whom were Ossetians) in great numbers. This created resentment between the Mountaineers of the Highlands and their new neighbours. Under Soviet rule, however, the Cossacks were banished from their new home for supporting the anti-Soviet White forces during the civil war of 1918-21. Once the Cossacks were exiled from their homes, the Prigorodnyi region was given to Ingush as a reward for their support of the Bolsheviks.

Over the following few years, the North Caucasus underwent drastic changes under Soviet rule. Foreign socialist forces began the dubious process of uniting tribes and people with longstanding differences and eventually established territorial units. The Prigorodnyi region, once home to Ossetian Cossacks, remained with the Ingush.

The scene was set for one of the most painful memories in North Caucasus history: the deportation and genocide of the Vainakh nations.

Near the end of World War II in 1944, the Chechen and Ingush people were branded as Nazi collaborators by paranoid Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. The secret plan to deport the Chechen and Ingush people en masse to Central Asia was given the name ‘Aardakh’ (Operation Lentil). The Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was dissolved and entire populations were relocated. The entire operation was conducted with extreme cruelty, as hundreds of thousands were killed in the process, either shot on command or forced to walk in inhumane conditions. Between 170,00-200,000 Chechens died in the process, nearly half the population at the time. 92,000 Ingush people suffered a similar fate. 496,000 people were forcibly evicted from Chechnya and Ingushetia.

Posted by Макка Добриева on Sunday, February 22, 2015

“As they were leading us down a cliff, an old man walking at the end of the column fell to his knees and put his hands on the ground, recalled Asluddi Tsugayev, a 92-year-old native who walked 40km under soldier escort in the 1944 deportation. “He couldn’t go on. He was bleeding from his mouth. His daughter and son, threatened with rifles, were herded back into the column. Someone in the crowd threw him a piece of cornbread, so he wouldn’t die of hunger. After we walked a bit farther away, the soldiers shot him and kicked his body down the cliff. I still have the sight of this old man in my eyes. He was surprised by this animalistic cruelty from people who drove him out of his house.”

The now-abandoned Prigorodnyi region that belonged to the Ingush for several decades was given to the North Ossetians, who avoided Stalin’s paranoid wrath. Ethnic Ossetians living in the South Caucasus were relocated to Ingush territory that same year as part of the Soviet strategy to maintain longstanding ethnic tensions in the region. The Ingush and Chechen people, who had resettled in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Siberia, were only allowed to return 13 years later in 1957, well after Stalin’s death. The Ingush immediately returned to the Prigorodnyi region, though were unable to claim it as their territory. Soviet policy continued to favor Ossetia until the USSR’s dissolution in 1991.

Unfortunately, the collapse of the Soviet Union meant that war between Ossetia and Ingushetia was inevitable.

The following year in 1992, ethnic violence gradually increased in the form of armed militant attacks on citizens. The Ingush attacked the Prigorodny district in a week-long battle in October 1992, though were unable to take it over due to rising death tolls. During this time, Ingush residents in Ossetia were forcibly evicted and physically abused. According to Human Rights Watch, “Russian troops either sat idly by while Ossetian paramilitaries and North Ossetian security forces forced out Ingush civilians along with the fighters, or they assisted those efforts with armor or artillery support.” Even following the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian government continued to show favoritism to the Ossetians. They did not stop Ossetian attempts to drive Ingush people out of Prigorodny or prevent looting of abandoned homes in the aftermath of the conflict. Overall, 302 Ingush and 151 Ossetians were killed during the armed conflict.

Soon afterwards, President Boris Yeltsin issued a decree that the Prigorodny region would remain a part of North Ossetia.


The genocide and expulsion of the Chechen and Ingush people remains one of the most difficult and painful experiences for the North Caucasus in the 20th century. The deportation not only highlights the ethnic divide between Ossetians and their Muslim neighbours, but between the Caucasus and their Russian overlords. The Kremlin is yet to admit to a genocide in 1944 and Chechnya dictator Ramzan Kadyrov, a Putin loyalist, has banned the commemoration of the February 23rd date, lest it interfere with the Russian holiday, the Day of the Defender of the Fatherland.

While Mairbek Khasiev’s perspective on the Ossetian conflict stems from his personal experiences as a Chechen citizen with parents impacted by harrowing experiences, his decision to openly taunt Ossetians online was a questionable one. While ethnic tension between the Caucasus neighbours may not have necessarily defused, it had subsided enough for both republics to live without the constant fear of armed conflict.

And yet, those ethnically-charged comments directed at online trolls were enough to put an end to Ossetian participation on the ACB 59 event. This should serve as a reminder that geopolitics and MMA go hand in hand.

Share this story

About the author
Karim Zidan
Karim Zidan

Karim Zidan is a investigative reporter and feature writer focusing on the intersection of sports and politics. He has written for BloodyElbow since 2014 and has served as an associate editor since 2016. He also writes for The New York Times and The Guardian. Karim has been invited to speak about his work at numerous universities, including Princeton, and was a panelist at the South by Southwest (SXSW) film festival and the Oslo Freedom Forum. He also participated in the United Nations counter-terrorism conference in 2021. His reporting on Ramzan Kadyrov’s involvement in MMA, much of which was done for Bloody Elbow, has led to numerous award nominations, and was the basis of an award-winning HBO Real Sports documentary.

More from the author

Bloody Elbow Podcast
Related Stories