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Putin’s Troubled Alliance: Kadyrov, Fedor, and child fights in Chechnya

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Karim Zidan delves into the recent child MMA scandal in Russia which has encompassed Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov and heavyweight legend Fedor Emelianenko.

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Ramzan Kadyrov Photo by Kadyrov Press Office/Getty Images

On October 4, 2016, Chechnya’s strongman leader Ramzan Kadyrov hosted an MMA event to celebrate his upcoming 40th birthday. As part of the festivities, he assigned fights for his three sons, 11-year-old Akhmad, 9-year-old Zelimkhan, and 8-year-old Adam. The three youngsters, the heaviest of which was 37kg, even participated in the pre-fight weigh-in ceremony, including the posturing theatrics that occasionally accompany the more official task of making weight.

Less than 24 hours later, all three children stepped into the cage wearing only shorts and 6oz gloves—they donned no rash guard, no padding, nor protective headgear. Accompanied by various members of the Akhmat Fight Club like UFC fighter Abdel-Kerim Edilov, the three princes won their respective fights. The oldest, named after his infamous grandfather who sided with Vladimir Putin during the Second Chechen War, won by technical knockout. Despite the swift kick to the body that ended the fight, Akhmad’s terrified opponent appeared grateful to be done with the traumatic experience.

All three of the Kadyrov princes were awarded miniaturized championship belts for their efforts, while members of the Akhmat team celebrated their win as though the victory was their own. For many whose livelihoods depend on Kadyrov, it probably was. Outside of Chechnya, however, many were disturbed with what they had just witnessed.

In the immediate aftermath of the World Fight Championships of Akhmat Grand Prix tournament, Russian media outlets reported the incident with a tone of confused disgust. The news prompted popular figures like Fedor Emelianenko, legendary Russian heavyweight and president of the Russian MMA Union, to condemn the seemingly illegal activity. In a social media post, Fedor explained that “what happened in Grozny is unacceptable & cannot be justified." This prompted a torrent of abusive responses from the members of the Akhmat Fight Club, including WSOF flyweight champion Magmoed Bibulatov and notorious State Duma member Adam Delimkhanov. Even UFC lightweight Khabib Nurmagomedov took aim at Fedor and stood in favor of the child fights in Chechnya.

The conflict between the Akhmat MMA and the Russian MMA Union also prompted an official investigation from the Kremlin and the Commissioner for Children's Rights in the Russian Federation.

"If it was on television, and it is true that a child was knocked out, it is most definitely of interest to the relevant supervisory authorities," Presidential spokesperson Dmitri Peskov told reporters.

As a result, a schism has been created within the Russian mixed martial arts community, represented by their respective MMA leaders Fedor and Kadyrov. Given that both represent the same political party and are Putin’s noted allies, the conflicts may shed some light on the covert politics at play within Russia.

Putin’s Troubled Allies

Several months ago, Kadyrov posted a video on his Instagram account in which a political opponent of Putin’s appeared to be in the cross-hairs of a sniper rifle’s telescopic sight. At the time, it was only the latest in Kadyrov’s increasingly hostile rhetoric against all Russian opposition, whom he referred to as “traitors” and “enemies of the people.”

"Anyone who did not understand will get it," wrote Kadyrov.

The video and vicious imagery was concerning to the many Kremlin critics, who questioned the long leash allocated to Putin’s vassal in Chechnya. If Kadyrov was loyal to Putin and to Russia, why was he acting out of turn? Had his ambition overshadowed his loyalty to the Kremlin, or had he simply realized the leverage he truly had with the weight of a volatile republic resting on his shoulders?

Armed with over 30,000 soldiers in his personal militia known as the ‘Kadyrovtsy’ and a legion of nearly 2 million Instagram followers who helped form his blossoming cult of personality, Kadyrov is far more capable than the heads of other Russian republics. The People's Freedom Party's (Parnas) Ilya Yashin later released a report that labeled Kadyrov’s private army a threat to Russia’s national security.

Kadyrov’s antics did not go unnoticed. For weeks, Putin ignored requests to meet Kadyrov in person to sign a decree appointing him acting head of the Chechen Republic. Kadyrov, whose tenure as president had come to an end several months before the September elections, eventually got Putin’s blessing, though it came with a catch.

"It's essential to coordinate more closely when it comes to working with the federal organs of power, especially on security matters," Putin told Kadyrov during a meeting in his Kremlin office. "You must do everything to ensure that Russian law in all spheres of life is observed. I want to underline in all spheres of life."

The outcome was predictable at best. Few assumed that Putin was prepared to alienate an unpredictable leader with a personal army that could rekindle the Islamic insurgency that already cost Russia two separate wars and countless lives (see the Chechen Wars). Though Putin and Kadyrov seemingly didn’t see eye-to-eye on many topics, their mutual alliance has been seen as essential due to the potential consequences associated with the alternative.

During the September elections, Kadyrov won 98% of the votes and was re-elected as Head of the Chechen Republic. He celebrated by wearing a suit of armor to a reception that evening.

Because of his position as a political leader, it practically goes without saying that Kadyrov’s alliance with Putin is vastly different than Fedor Emelianenko’s relationship with the president.

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When Fedor Emelianenko defeated Pedro Rizzo on June 21, 2012 in what was supposed to be the final fight of his professional career, a casually dressed Putin stepped into the ring and congratulated the legendary heavyweight on his historic achievements. It was not the first time that the two notable Russians had crossed paths, nor was it the last.

Fedor represented one of the most obvious examples of athletes being used for political gain in Russia. Ahead of Putin’s re-election in 2012, Fedor campaigned for the ‘United Russia’ party in support of Putin, who later won a third term for presidency with 63.6% of the vote. At the time, Putin’s popularity had reportedly faltered and the added support and prestige that came from role model athletes like Fedor was seen as key to restoring faith.

However, Fedor’s campaigning for Putin was not his first taste of political life in Russia. Back in 2010, still in the midst of his MMA career, he was elected to a five-year term as a deputy of the Belgorod Regional Duma, representing the loyalist United Russia political party. On 28 July 2012, Emelianenko replaced Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev as a staff member of Russia's Council of Physical Fitness & Sports. The corresponding decree was signed by Putin himself.

Fedor also serves as the head of the Russian MMA Union and remains on good terms with Putin. Ahead of his of MMA return, Fedor revealed that the Russian president contacted him to wish him luck and to give him his blessing. This was seen as hugely significant and indicative of how Putin treats athletes who are considered heroes in the country. And it’s why it should come as no shock (or coincidence) that the Kremlin announced an investigation into Kadyrov’s pre-teen experiment in Grozny immediately following Fedor’s condemnation.

Humiliation & Intimidation

Once Fedor’s comments went public, it seemed clear that tensions would rise in Chechnya. WSOF champ Magomed Bibulatov and other Chechen fighters unleashed an avalanche of humiliating photos and comments designed to intimidate the sporting legend. Some accused Fedor of doping, while others called him a hypocrite after his own “loss” against Fabio Maldonado back in June. Pictures of his battered face spread across Chechen social media pages.

It was a calculated attempt to deteriorate Fedor’s power and lessen his popularity within the North Caucasus. It has worked within Chechnya, where most citizens are used to Kadyrov-inspired tactics of intimidation and public humiliation. For Kadyrov and his supporters, ridicule is a powerful tactic to control the masses.

On the day of Putin’s annual phone-in marathon, a disgruntled Chechen, Ramazan Dzhalaldinov, posted a video where he requested the president help improve living conditions in his village of Kenkhi. He also accused the Chechen government of extortion and distorting the truth on public broadcasts. Several days after the video was published, Dzhalaldinov’s house was burned down and his family was deported from the Chechen Republic. He himself went missing.

The remaining citizens of Dzhalaldinov’s village hurried to show their support for Kadyrov, and even called their fellow Kenkhi native ‘mentally unstable.’ Kadyrov later accused Dzhalaldinov of burning down his own house to seek asylum in Europe. Dzhalaldinov eventually apologized from his hiding place in neighbouring Dagestan.

“I apologize to [Chechen leader] Ramzan Kadyrov that this has happened. I apologize to the entire people [of Chechnya] and ask others like me not to do the wrong things,” he said.

Once again, it seems that Kadyrov had used the power public humiliation to strip a citizen of his dignity and force him to repent. Kadyrov and his supporters applied similar tactics to Fedor under the assumption that it would be enough to shame him into an apology.

Repost from @bibulatov__magomed Емельяненко обеспокоен тем, что творится в Чеченской республике. Сквозная ерунда. Чувствуется провокация со стороны или же это такой пиар ход. Да и кто в детстве не дрался? Так пусть лучше это происходит в клетке, где есть врачи и судьи, нежели в подворотне, где старшие ребята стравливают малолеток, а тут, видите ли, три показательных боя устроили, с проффесиональным судьей, который даже падения контролировал, подхватывал где надо, разнимал и останавливал. Тем более, что целью этих показательных боев было популяризация детского спорта, в частности контактных единоборств. Федор тут просто сдраматизировал как смог. Наверное, то ли с возрастом, то ли из-за своих *показательных* боев в Rizin FF, Федор стал слишком сентиментальным, что такие показательные бои вызывают у него чувство страха за подрастающее поколение. Пусть Федор не лезет куда не надо и не переживает за это, потому что наш глава республики @kadyrov_95 делает всё для подрастающего и не только, поколения. Лучше бы побескоился о своей репутации бойца или о своем наследии бойца, которые с каждым боем идут... в общем, как алмаз в пятикопеечной оправе. Пускай начнет со своего брата!!!

A photo posted by Магомед "Гладиатор" Бибулатов (@official_bibulatov) on

One of Kadyrov’s closest allies, State Duma rep Adam Delimkhanov, even threatened that Fedor will be “held responsible for his words against Kadyrov’s children.” He also targeted Fedor’s “educated addict brother who beat and raped women.”

This was followed by a strategic set of social media posts from fighters associated with Kadyrov, like UFC lightweight contender Khabib Nurmagomedov and former heavyweight champion Fabricio Werdum, both of whom condemned Fedor’s actions and showed support for child MMA in Chechnya (I reached out to the UFC for comment to no avail).

“I support that kids should do and compete in any sport if the event are safe and well prepared for that. @akhmat_mma put a great show and have 6 kids competing MMA with different rules than adult MMA. Kids compete all around the World in contact sport as #Karate, #muaythai #jiujitsu #boxe #takendown #judo @kadyrov_95 @vismuradov_95_” (Werdum IG)

It should be noted that all those who showed support for Kadyrov either operate within Chechnya, or are funded by the warlord himself. Werdum serves as the ambassador for the Akhmat Fight Club.

However, the collective Chechen response only created a schism in the Russian MMA community. Several fighters have shown their support for Fedor, including Nikita Krylov, who challenged UFC fighter Abdel-Kerim Edilov for Fedor’s honor. Edilov had stated on his Instagram account that Fedor “may have just been jealous that he was not invited, or that people were not paying attention to his exploits.”

The public response against Kadyrov was a shock to a strongman leader, used to the fear and adoration that his massive national support has afforded him. Yet his actions have led to an international backlash of media criticism. Instead of the united response shaming Fedor that was expected, the Akhmat Fight Club has been flooded with an avalanche of negative criticism and are now under investigation for child abuse by the Kremlin.

It seems this backlash has led to a new IG post from Kadyrov, calling for all Chechens to stop sending Fedor negative messages because he is “certain that Fedor realized his mistakes.” It’s a somewhat surprising reaction from the Chechen leader. Unable to extract an apology through humiliation and intimidation, it appears he’s looking to be magnanimous and call off the negative attacks on the MMA great.

Whether it helps heal the rift these children’s MMA fights have opened remains to be seen.

Dynastic Propaganda

When Kadyrov placed his three princelings in MMA fights last Tuesday, it was not merely for entertainment or for the development of sports, as the Akhmat Fight Club claims. He used his own children as a propaganda tool to further promote his own political goals. Following their fights, he bragged about their exploits on his social media account and posted edited videos that showcased their abilities against hapless opposition.

In one day’s time, Kadyrov managed to weave his own children into his fabricated model of Chechen machismo and put it on display to the world. Perhaps a small step in securing his dynastic lineage.

While this concept might seem far-fetched to some, it’s in keeping with the broader narrative that Kadyrov promotes. He regularly posts videos of himself wearing a Putin t-shirt and working out in the gym, or training with MMA fighters and boxers. He promotes Chechen manhood, though a version that suits his political needs. His sports socialization tactic allows Kadyrov to assimilate Chechens en masse into combat sports programs. This uniformity could trouble the Kremlin and Chechnya’s neighboring republics.

It is unlikely that Kadyrov will be reprimanded following his child MMA scanda. It would come at a high price for the Kremlin. Kadyrov controls a significant private army and has managed to manipulate a fair portion of his own people. His removal could be a dangerous risk for Russia if Chechnya falls into the hands of another Islamic insurgency. A third Chechen War is not the outcome the Kremlin would prefer to engender from an incident related to a sports event. At best, Kadyrov will likely be informed that he can no longer host such events in his republic and will instead have to comply with the Russian MMA Union’s guidelines.

As for Fedor, it is difficult to imagine a situation where he would be physically harmed by the Kadyrov himself. The heavyweight fighter is a living legend in Russia and a national hero to the majority of local sports fans. His removal would be an unnecessary risk given the size of the actual grievance. However, Kadyrov has a history of eliminating undesirable opposition, one that’s hard to overlook. He also has legions of fervent supporters eager to please him and do his biding. That in itself is a terrifying thought.

It is also likely the reason for the new petition signed by 47,000 people (and counting) requesting that Putin protect Fedor from Kadyrov.

Ultimately, this child MMA scandal has been a reminder of how closely intertwined politics and sports are in the Russian Federation. And a reminder of how a single misguided comment could potentially spark an unnecessary conflict in a volatile nation.