Investigation consists of four parts. Read the full investigation on the Proekt website.
Part 1: Master and Chef. How Evgeny Prigozhin led the Russian offensive in Africa.
Since 2018, Russia has started active expansion in Africa, helping various countries on the continent, politically, financially and with military assistance. At the forefront of this expansion was the “Kremlin Chef”, a shady businessman named Evgenу Prigozhin, who fell under U.S. sanctions for his interference in the US presidential election. The Project tells how this campaign was organized, based on the example of Madagascar, where the Kremlin’s plans were especially large-scale.
On November 7 and 8, 2018, users of several dozen VK groups (Russian social media) observed an unusual thing. At about the same time, posts with a primitive map of Madagascar, geotagged “Antananarivo province”, with a link to the article “presidential elections started in Madagascar”, appeared in VK groups dedicated to clubs, bars, shopping centers, cinemas and cartoons. All the communities where these records were published “Madagascar” is part of their name. And the account from which these messages were sent was probably a bot, which was later blocked for some time by the social network.
A total of 33 such posts appeared in different communities, The Project has calculated, based on Echosec service data. The website to which the link leads is the news agency Politics Today, established by the Federal News Agency, and associated with the personal chef of the Russian President, Evgeny Prigozhin. The first round of Madagascar’s elections, which took place on November 7, was really important for both the entrepreneur and the Kremlin. Russian political strategists operated in Madagascar for six months, helping to organize election campaigns for several local presidential candidates.
These posts did not help increase the audience of the Federal News Agency: on the contrary, in November, the web-traffic of the news agency was about half of the previous month, according to SimilarWeb data. So no practical benefits came from the bots’ activity. The same was true for all of Prigozhin’s campaigns on the island.
Evgeny Prigozhin — businessman from St. Petersburg. In his youth, according to Rosbalt news outlet, he was tried for theft, fraud and robbery. In the early 2000s, Vladimir Putin took the French and US presidents, Jacques Chirac and George Bush, to his floating restaurant. Later, the businessman received contracts for the supply of food for the army, schools and kindergartens, as well as for Kremlin banquets. “Prigozhin feeds very well”, a senior federal official explained Prigozhin’s success. People associated with Prigozhin later apparently participated in the beating of opposition activists, the financing of the “Trolls factory”, and the creation of a private military company, which was headed by a former employee of the GRU, Dmitry Utkin, nicknamed “Wagner”.
Prigozhin’s interest in Africa arose around the end of 2017, says a political strategist who worked for the businessman in Madagascar. At the same time, the entrepreneur was able to favorably submit the idea of strengthening Russian influence in the world to President Vladimir Putin. He stressed that Moscow could oust Beijing’s influence in the “third world”. “Prigozhin’s secret is that he learned to „sell“ Putin’s dream — what the President wants to hear about the strengthening of Russian influence in the world”, says a source familiar with Prigozhin.
This was not the first time the “Kremlin chef” was involved in foreign policy. Before this, Prigozhin’s associates were involved in fighting in the “Donetsk and Lugansk Republics”, fighting in Syria, and trying to influence the US presidential election in 2016.
The African idea apparently attracted Putin. In the summer of 2018, he was already talking about the prospects of Russian business on the continent, and he talked about preparation for the summit, “Russia-Africa”. When diplomats agreed on the details of the summit, which is scheduled for autumn 2019, an informal analytical center appeared in St. Petersburg, says a political strategist who worked in Madagascar. It was from there that all the work on Africa was coordinated.
Among the leaders of the staff were spin doctors Yaroslav Ignatowsky and Igor Osadchy, both of whom are connected with the Prigozhin, according to earlier publications in the Russian media. Osadchy is engaged in the “recruitment” of political consultants for a trip to Africa, one of The Project sources told us. Ignatovsky and Osadchy refused to talk to The Project.
…because there was even more experience (there were many new and interesting projects on the island, including the campaign’s Internet support; customer E. Prigozhin), I still wanted to offer my services in terms of participation in the September campaign.
In a letter, the political strategist points out that for a long time he worked on a big project in Madagascar.
In the spring of 2018, the staff of the St. Petersburg center prepared for Prigozhin an extensive reference to 20 African countries, said the political strategist who saw that document. Bloomberg previously wrote about the growth of Russia’s activity in ten African countries: the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Libya, Madagascar, Angola, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and the Central African Republic. In addition to these countries, Prigozhin’s analysts were also involved in Chad, Nigeria and Kenya, said a political consultant who worked for Prigozhin.
Lemurs and baobabs
Some just went to see lemurs and Baobab Alley, a political strategist told us about his colleagues, who in the spring of 2018, came to Madagascar as part of a group of 15-20 Russian specialists. (A similar approximation of the size of the group was given to us by a Malagasy politician who asked for anonymity for security reasons). They travelled by regular flights from Moscow with several connections. None of them were specialists in Madagascar politics. Spin doctors got the first glimpse of the situation in the country in March 2018, when the investment forum in Moscow was attended by Malagasy President Erie Rajaonarimampianina, two political consultants told The Project. Some of Prigozhin’s analysts came to a meeting with the President at the hotel opposite the Russian Foreign Ministry building in Moscow. Those political strategists were accredited as researchers from one of the universities, said one of the consultants who was at the meeting.
“The task was not to find smart political strategists. The task was to make a kind of complicity: we were there, holding the pole, and without us the flag would have fallen”, explained one of the political strategists.
The experts were tasked with supporting the current head of state, whom the Russians immediately nicknamed “the piano” for brevity, according to the Russian spelling of the last points of his surname. But during work on the island, the candidates on whom the bet was made changed several times, emphasizes the political strategist who worked in Madagascar. “It is unclear whose banner was supported”, joked another source who worked in Madagascar.
There was no clear criteria for selection to the “Madagascar group”. The basis of the group were not very well known regional political strategists or young analysts without experience in field work, and even “volunteers from Syria, who in Madagascar suddenly became political consultants”, said one of the political strategists. The Project identified several experts who participated in the assignment.
Erie Rajaonarimampianina’s visit was planned over almost six months, and was preceded by a series of meetings that Malagasy officials held with Russian diplomats in late 2017 and early 2018. At the end of March, Mikhail Bogdanov, Putin’s special representative for the Middle East and Africa, paid a return visit to Antananarivo. Already in April, Moscow had warned foreign powers against interfering in policy in Madagascar, where there were clashes between the opposition and the police.
Maxim Shugaley’s work on the island was confirmed by two of his Russian colleagues and an employee of one of the Malagasy politicians, named Shafira (she asked not to specify her last name for security reasons). In addition, The Project found a photo of a man extremely similar to Shugaley, which was posted on Facebook with the Malagasy driver who worked with the Russian delegation on the island.
Malagasy driver Danis Rasam posted this picture on his Facebook page in early August 2018. He and Russian citizen Maxim Shugaley (pictured with a phone) are posing in a restaurant in the city of Toamasina on the eastern side of the island.
Shugaley earlier participated in local elections in St. Petersburg. He became famous for eating documents that were not handed over to the court in the city’s legislative elections in 2002.
In Madagascar, Shugaley met with staff members of former Prime Minister Jean Berisiki, who was running for President, and offered them funding, an employee staff of Malagasy politician Eric Joclyn told The Project. According to her, she received about a thousand euros from Shugaley. Shugaley answered all questions from The Project with only the word “Hello”.
Valery Porubov, whose presence in Madagascar was confirmed by an employee of former Prime Minister Jean Birisiki. The employee interacted with a group of Russian consultants and helped them with logistics.
Porubov is from St. Petersburg. He presumably was in Madagascar in December, 2018, as part of a group of ten people. Shortly after, the group left Antananarivo and headed to the cities of Antsiranana and Mahajanga, in the north of the island. In answer to The Project’s questions, Porubov said only, “You have an interesting pattern of communication”, and then refused to talk.
Vladimir Frolov. The Project learned about his trip to Madagascar from a member of the Malagasy political movement “Akata”.
Frolov is a political strategist from Nizhny Novgorod, and was at the origins of the newspaper “Our time Udmurtia”, as he claims on his Facebook page. In Madagascar, he met with the former Minister of Agriculture, Vivato Rakotovao, as well as with representatives of the “Akata” movement. He introduced himself to local activists as “Monsieur Vladimir Volodya” or “V. V”. but the Malagasy soon realized that he did not give his surname. Frolov did not hesitate to tell about his trip to the island, filling out a questionnaire on the dating service Znakomstva@Mail.Ru. He did not answer questions of The Project.
Grigori Belikov, whose work on the island was confirmed by the videographer Cariba, Ramanantsoa, and two activists, Mahigit Cozamin and Erica Iklan (all three worked for several candidates in the presidential election).
Belikov is a political strategist, although it is probably not his main source of income. Since 2008 Belikov has owned shoe stores, we learned from the Russian register of commercial entities. Last summer, Belikov published an announcement of the sale of his shoe business: “Four stores in St. Petersburg, one in Petrozavodsk, inventory balances of 25 million rubles, profitability of five years”. During a trip to Madagascar, he worked in the city of Toamasina, where he stayed at the Victoria Beach hotel. An employee of this headquarters of one of the Malagasy politicians told The Project that a group of political strategists, which included Belikov, was engaged in the financing of candidates, but he did not answer other questions. Belikov himself insists that he went to Madagascar to rest.
Also working on the island was a political consultant from Nizhny Novgorod, Nikolai Pakhomov, an activist from Malagasy told The Project. (Pakhomov did not answer questions from The Project). And the group included about 20 translators, whose services were required because none of the political consultants spoke French, said the political strategist who worked in Madagascar. He confirmed that two local guides accompanied the group. Among the translators were a graduate of MGIMO, Ekaterina Postnikova, and Andrei Maslennikov, who graduated from the Military University of the Ministry of Defense. Both of them ignored the Project’s request to talk.
Initially, political strategists had to support the incumbent President, Erie Radzaunarimampianina, said a political strategist who worked on the island. It was assumed that the experts would engage in sociological research and analytics, prepare a plan for the election campaign, publish newspapers, and coordinate the texts of speeches. But this work was mostly not carried out. “The costs were very high, but no one cared about the effect. For example, we decided to publish a newspaper with a circulation of half a million copies (the population of the island is about 25 million people). While we were waiting for the ship with a printing press, a plane brought 50 risographs. And no one cares that they will release 500 copies, and then risographs are not required. You just had to get the money and spend it”, a political strategist explained.
In addition, it soon became apparent that the re-election of the head of state would not work. “He just didn’t do anything! – one of the political strategists said indignantly. According to him, the presidential staff told the consultants what kind of assistance they needed from Russia: new weapons and uniforms for the army, five military helicopters, humanitarian supplies, assistance to combat the effects of the storms. “Wrote (Who? the president?) an estimate of about $100 million. In fact, it was bribes”, said a source for The Project, specifying that the President did not receive this “help”.
His pessimistic forecast was justified: Rajaonarimampianina scored slightly less than 9% of the votes and did not pass to the second round. But even a few months before voting day, experts began to look for a new candidate with whom they could win. A bet was made on six more politicians, but their results were also sad. The Project obtained a full list of candidates with whom Russian political strategists worked, provided by the Malagasy politician who was present at the meetings. A Russian political consultant and three activists from Madagascar confirmed that political consultants interacted with the listed candidates.
Close to the end of the campaign, strategists also decided to help Andre Rajoelina. On December 19, he received the majority of votes in the second round. But Prigozhin’s consultants can hardly attribute this victory to themselves: the candidate was supported by the US and China, which has already promised to help the new President.
However, political strategists were only a small bonus on top of other assistance provided by Russia to Madagascar, in the field of military cooperation and exploration.
How many Prigizhin’s candidates scored in the first round of the elections
Isle of gold
Over the past year, the “Federal News Agency” (FNA) has promised Russia incredible benefits for cooperating with Madagascar: oil production and the development of the mining industry, a supply of vanilla and agricultural products, waste disposal and construction projects, including the renovation of the port of Tuamasina. “Even Peter The Great in 1721 sent a letter to the king of malgash with a proposal for cooperation”, the FNA noted in their publication.
The Ministry of Mining and the oil industry of Madagascar signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Russia at the last St. Petersburg economic forum. So far, only one Russian company operates in Madagascar. “We have a Russian company in the field of chromium production. And now they are looking for an opportunity to work in the field of gold mining”, said Eloi Duva, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Madagascar, who worked for many years as an Ambassador in Moscow.
Most probably he was talking about the company Ferrum Mining, which is indirectly related to the Russian Defense Ministry and produces chromite — a mineral of chromium.
In Russia, Ferrum Mining has only one employee and no financial statements, according to the data of SPARK-Interfax. The company was registered in St. Petersburg in November 2017, just when Prigogzhin started to be interested in Africa. According to the statutory documents, the company can be engaged in ore mining, oil, coal, precious metals and stones mining, and in agriculture, logging and trade. In addition, the company is allowed to create its own private security company.
Ferrum Mining is a company that was supposed to save the state of Kraomita Malagasy. In August-September 2018, the parties signed an agreement that provided for the creation of a joint venture — Kraoma Mining, according to the agreement obtained by The Project (its authenticity was confirmed by a Malagasy politician who asked for anonymity for security reasons. Excerpts from the document were previously published by the publication “L’express de Madagascar”). The partnership promised Kraomita Malagasy an investment of $16 million, as well as repayment of salary debts. Under the terms of the document, the joint venture was to produce three million tons of ore within five years.
Ferrum Mining also has geological interests in Sudan, Zimbabwe and “some other states”, according to the company’s documents.
On October 22, the contract came into force, the same day mining began. But even before that, Kraomita Malagasy paid $400 thousand for employees salaries for September and October, and for healthcare. Who exactly received the money, and for what, remained a mystery that caused discontent among staff. In winter, the workers went on strike, demanding debt repayment, and opposing the opaque partnership with the Russian company. Ferrum Mining and Kraomita Malagasy did not respond to requests by The Project.
On behalf of Ferrum Mining, a contract on the establishment of a joint venture was signed by Evgeny Osipov, and at least nine employees worked on the island. One of them is Vladimir Malkovsky from Tatarstan. He published his resume several times on specialized websites. As his desired position, he indicated “surveyor”, that is a specialist in surveying mining. A chief technician Valery Karyavkin, who participated in negotiations with the Malagasy workers, previously worked in the Russian Ministry of Defense, according to materials of public procurement.
In September 2018 Kraomita Malagasy invited Russian employees of Ferrum Mining to visit the island.
Geologists from Ferrum Mining closely communicated with Russian political strategists, and the company is not only engaged in chromite, but also conducts negotiations on gold mining, added the Malagasy politician who asked for anonymity. One of the consultants who worked in Madagascar confirmed that the Russian delegations included geologists.
In the autumn of 2018, Russia and Madagascar agreed to cooperate in the military sphere: the agreement refers to the training of personnel, visits of warships and aircraft. A few weeks after the document was signed in the port of Antsiranana, the Russian anti-submarine battle ship “Severomorsk” arrived.
But six months before the signing of the document, armed mercenaries and military advisers had already appeared on the island. Thus, the security of geologists who worked mainly in the North and East of the island, as well as the security of political strategists, was provided by mercenaries from the “Wagner group”, two political strategists told The Project. “They arrived in April 2018 after the riots and discussed among themselves how they were soaked in 2018 under Deir ez-Zor”, recalls one of the political strategists. “They were armed to the teeth”, said the Malagasy politician of the meeting with the mercenaries.
In addition to mercenaries, security in Madagascar was provided by FSB and GRU (Russian special services). They also trained local military troops, explained two political strategists. “They were also there in case of “orange scenarios”, — says one of the political strategists. — “It was clear that GRU sent skilled experts. They understand a lot about African affairs, though they bill themselves as simpletons”.
Officers of the Ministry of Defense did not hide their presence on the island. In the winter of 2018, one of them was in the official Embassy footage from a meeting in the Ministry of Defense of Madagascar, held on February 15. The name of one of the officers is shown on the published picture, Demenko V. V. In Russian official documents published on the Defense Ministry’s website, an officer of the same name is mentioned as the department head in GRU.
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The effectiveness of Prigozhin’s efforts in Madagascar was low. None of the candidates with whom political strategists initially worked passed to the second round. A project for the extraction of chromite at the end of 2018 was suspended, due to a strike.
“St. Petersburg: center for African issues”, according to one of the political strategists, also left much to be desired. “Once at two o’clock in the morning an employee of the center realized that the electoral system in France is very similar to the electoral system in Madagascar and that it must be used. The fact that Madagascar is a former French colony had somehow escaped her”.
Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the Project that the Kremlin does not know anything about the work of Prigozhin’s structures in Madagascar; In the press service of a businessman, work in Madagascar is denied.