Grozny rules.

Photographer: Elena Fitkulina/AFP/Getty Images

Kiddie MMA Bouts Test Putin's Hands-Off Approach to Chechnya

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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What kind of parent would allow preteen children to compete in mixed martial arts, without even headgear for protection? Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Russian region of Chechnya, has gone further: He allowed his sons' fights to be broadcast on national television.

On Oct. 4, an MMA tournament was held in Chechnya's capital, Grozny, as part of celebrations marking Kadyrov's 40th birthday. It included some show bouts between small kids, shown on Match TV -- a channel with national reach. Kadyrov's sons, Adam, 8, Zelimkhan, 9, and Akhmad, 10, all won their fights. The eldest won by a technical knockout in 14 seconds, and Kadyrov Sr. posted the video of the event on Instagram with a jubilant comment. In another post, he praised his youngest son: "Little Adam has proven that he is truly a Lion!"

Under MMA rules, the youngest allowable age is 12, and even then, the fighters need to wear protective gear. Kadyrov's sons and their rivals fought like adults, naked to the waist. That outraged Fedor Emelianenko, the head of the Russian MMA federation, a favorite athlete of President Vladimir Putin and an MMA champion. "What happened in Grozny yesterday was unacceptable and it cannot be justified," Emelianenko posted on Instagram. "Kids under 12 aren't even allowed into the arena as spectators, and here eight-year-old kids were beating the hell out of each other while adults watched happily."

The Russian Sports Ministry and the children's rights ombudsman said they were looking into the matter. Yet at most, Kadyrov probably will get off with a mild reprimand. He has a special status in Putin's Russia, and so does his formerly rebellious region.

Chechnya has a strong warrior culture. When the region fought a war of secession from Russia in the mid-1990s, boys not much younger than Kadyrov's sons picked up weapons against Russian troops. The future regional head himself was barely out of high school when he joined the rebel forces. At 20, he served as the bodyguard of his father, Akhmat Kadyrov, the Muslim leader of Chechnya, who decided to go over to Moscow's side and later was killed in a terrorist attack. 

Putin, who had delegated the Kadyrov clan to run Chechnya for him, made the the son head of the region when he was 28 -- two years before he could be elected to the post. A stand-in had to serve as the region's formal leader until Kadyrov could assume the position.

His public admiration for Putin is sycophantic. Kadyrov has called the president Allah's gift to Russia and has threatened his political opponents. He has also repressed any incipient insurgency with an iron hand, and has been handsomely compensated for his efforts. 

This year, the central government in Moscow allocated 22.2 billion ($357 million) rubles to Chechnya -- 4 percent of the total for all Russian regions, even though the republic has less than one percent of Russia's population. Kadyrov and his associates also enjoy exceptional latitude in applying Russian laws. Last year, a likely forced marriage of a Chechen police chief to a 17-year-old girl went ahead, despite nationwide condemnation. Kadyrov's enormous and lavishly displayed personal wealth, amassed despite a lack of legitimate business connections, is never questioned.

When it comes to the kiddie MMA fights, the only person in any real danger is Emelianenko. Adam Delimkhanov, Kadyrov's cousin and a Russian parliament member from Putin's United Russia party attacked him in a diatribe posted on Instagram, adding, "Fedya, remember well our telephone conversation. You hung up on me because you didn't have the guts to speak normally as men -- that is a sign of your cowardice. In conclusion I'll note that whoever a person is, he will have to be held responsible for every word said about my dear nephews. Allah Akbar!"

The  region's tough medieval traditions aren't necessarily a good fit with Putin's image as a strongman. For years, as he tightened his grip on power and increased centralization, he has tolerated a region run by a largely autonomous warlord who is grooming his  children to succeed him. That Putin allows such autonomy is a rare and strange sign of vulnerability -- and may help explain his interest in Syria: He knows Russia's relative safety from Islamic State terror depends on a handful of individuals such as Kadyrov. Hundreds of Chechens fight alongside the Islamic State, and any effort to restore a semblance of law in Chechnya might give them an opening to come back and stir up trouble again.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net