Ramzan Kadyrov's sparring match – ostensibly good-natured 'criticism' of the minister's job performance – is seen by some as reflective of the darker undertones of Kadyrov's hard rule.
The phrase "banging heads" is often deployed as a political metaphor, but is seldom intended literally.
During a Monday visit to Chechnya's Ministry of Culture and Sports, Mr. Kadyrov, who is also an avid user of social media, took to his Twitter account to express great displeasure with the condition of the ministry's Grozny headquarters. A photo of Kadyrov and the hapless minister was subsequently posted to his Instagram account standing in front of the "deteriorated" structure.
Shoddy work has to be punished, and Kadyrov – who is a trained boxer – invited the minister to what he clearly viewed as a good-natured bout in the ring, photos of which he then posted to Instagram, together with a colorful commentary.
"As promised, I've held an educational conversation with the Minister of Culture and Sports in the ring," he wrote.
"In the course of our dialogue (or should I say, sparring), I gently threw a right hook, and pointed out to him with the fingers of my left (well, fist, actually) that you have to start using your head.... Since the minister has already started correcting his mistakes, I decided to let him wear a helmet. After all, he has to work tomorrow."
The photos illustrate that while Kadyrov had no protection at all, the sports minister wore a heavy, wraparound helmet.
He added that his Minister of Labor would be up for a drubbing next, depending on the results of an upcoming meeting.
Kadyrov, to whom Moscow handed control of Chechnya after pacifying the restive republic and withdrawing most of its troops in 2009, has run the place according to his own will ever since. The Kremlin has provided the steady stream of cash that's fueled an impressive economic revival on the tiny territory that has been devastated by two brutal wars since the USSR collapsed.
But Russia has not interfered with Kadyrov's style of rule, despite a steady drumbeat of reports about horrific human rights violations and indications that Kadyrov is defying the Russian constitution by introducing elements of Sharia law – especially regarding women's dress and public comportment – and authorizing Islamic vigilantes in the streets to enforce them.
The Kadyrov who's on display in his Twitter and Instagram accounts, and also his LiveJournal blog – which he updated Tuesday with a pledge to be more active in interfacing with the public – is a fitness buff, who loves sports, adores children, and isn't above a bit of cheerful roughhousing with his officials.
The reaction to the ministerial boxing match in Moscow, where Kadyrov is an acutely polarizing topic, ranged from those who argued that it's just a harmless Caucasian cultural peculiarity to others who saw chilling intimations of Chechen political reality beneath the seemingly jocular surface.
"Maybe this is a Chechen tradition, to hold a person responsible by calling him into the ring and beating him?" says Vladimir Zharikhin, deputy director of the official Institute of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Moscow.
"Evey nation has its own traditions. Don't judge, lest you be judged. I'm sure for Ramzan [Kadyrov] that new French law permitting same-sex marriage surely seems a lot weirder than anything he's doing," he adds.
But others say that Kadyrov is getting to be a distinct embarrassment for Russia, one that the Kremlin is afraid to confront because he is the last bastion of stability in the turbulent northern Caucasus.
An odd episode that reportedly occurred in Moscow last month illustrates this point. A group of officers of the FSB – Russia's national security/intelligence agency – "went on strike" after being forced by superiors to release a group of Kadyrov's bodyguards whom they had arrested on charges of kidnapping and extortion. If true, the story – reported by the opposition Novaya Gazeta, and summarized in the Moscow Times – suggests that Kadyrov and his men enjoy complete immunity from Russian law, even in downtown Moscow.
"Kadyrov is part of the foundation of Putin's rule," says Yevgeny Ikhlov, head of the analytical department of For Human Rights, a Moscow-based grassroots coalition.
"He is the cornerstone of the structure. Only Kadyrov can control all the Chechen ex-rebels who are loyal to him personally, and no one else. Without Kadyrov there would be a domino effect, leading to the collapse of order in Ingushetia, Dagestan, and possibly the entire northern Caucasus. So, as far as the Kremlin is concerned, Kadyrov can do anything he wants."