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The Real Russia. Today. Prigozhin wants Petersburg's next gubernatorial election, Rosgeo fires a dirtbag, and Milov explains what's really happening with Chechen gas debts

Source: Meduza

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

This day in history (159 years ago): On January 29, 1860, Russian playwright Anton Chekhov was born in Taganrog. He died in Badenweiler (in modern-day Germany) in 1904 at the age of 44.
  • ‘Putin's chef’ is reportedly trying to take control of St. Petersburg's coming gubernatorial election
  • Russian geological company executive loses job after ‘Twitch’ footage shows him bragging about sex with subordinates
  • Russian egg producers responded to high food prices by selling one fewer egg per carton. Let the memes begin!
  • Energy specialist Vladimir Milov says Chechnya's massive gas debts are really a state corruption issue
  • Read it elsewhere: RFE/RL's rare color photos from the USSR's Afghan war, Bloomberg's corrective on Washington fears about a Putin-Deripaska win, and The LA Times on disillusionment in Crimea

Yet another Prigozhin gambit 🗳️

Russia’s most mysterious businessman — the tycoon with empires in catering, media, and mercenary work — is back in the headlines, thanks to a new investigative report for the independent television network Dozhd by journalist Olga Churakova, who says political strategists tied to Evgeny Prigozhin are vying for control of acting St. Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov’s fall election campaign.

According to Dozhd, Prigozhin’s media outlets have published more than 1,300 puff pieces about Beglov since October 2018, and his “troll factory” has been busy promoting primitive cartoons where the governor is depicted as an uncompromising, efficient city official who enjoys Vladimir Putin’s personal support. Earlier this month, Prigozhin’s Internet bots even peppered local online communities with rave reviews for the city’s snow removal. “St. Petersburg is literally being licked clean!” several suspicious accounts claimed.

Prigozhin’s team of spin doctors is competing against strategists working under Alexander Kharichev (who runs the Kremlin’s State Council Coordination Office) and Lieutenant Governor Lyubov Sovershaeva (Belgov’s chief of staff). According to unnamed sources (who fuel the bulk of Churakova’s article), whoever wins control over Beglov’s campaign will also be first in line to manage all subsequent campaigns in the region.

Prigozhin reportedly wants the job to go to political strategist Yaroslav Ignatovsky, who led his monitoring team last year in Russia’s Northwestern Federal District, helping presidential envoy Nikolai Tsukanov run focus groups, track reports on social media and in the news, and consult experts. According to Bloomberg, Prigozhin later took this show on the road, performing similar political work in Zimbabwe, Madagascar, and the Congo.

Dozhd’s sources say Prigozhin is fighting to lead Beglov’s campaign largely because the billionaire seeks more influence on the distribution of state contracts in St. Petersburg. The region’s gubernatorial race itself will be a lucrative affair: experts say the campaign will cost at least 600 million rubles ($9 million). A Kremlin source claims Prigozhin’s team can expect informational-support contracts, while Sovershaeva will retain control over “technical affairs.”

Secret polling supposedly puts Beglov’s current popularity below 30 percent, meaning that the acting governor is bound for a risky second-round vote this fall, if strategists can’t turn things around. One source told Dozhd that the Kremlin’s situation in Petersburg is even worse than it was last year in Primorye, where the incumbent governor had to falsify election results to stop an opposition candidate from winning the run-off vote.

Gorring, gorring, gone 🎮

Ruslan Gorring is no longer a deputy director at the Russian state geological company Rosgeo, following the publication of scandalous online footage. Earlier this week, the Telegram channel Mediakiller shared a montage of Gorring’s outbursts on the live streaming video platform Twitch, where he threatened real-world violence against fellow PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds players. In another clip, Gorring speaks to a young woman who apparently works at Rosgeo whom he once fired for ordering him business-class — not first-class — plane tickets.

In the video, Gorring bullies the woman into recalling how he rehired her to work at a Rosgeo subsidiary to serve as his mole in the staff. He then brags about sleeping with four coworkers at the company, calling them “kitties” and “princesses,” while insisting that his female employees spend their time discussing his sexual conquests. At the end of the video, Gorring says he has a meeting scheduled soon with his boss (presumably Rosgeo head Roman Panov) and the billionaire Leonid Mikhelson.

Following Mediakiller’s Telegram post, the website Daily Storm published a long report on Gorring, claiming that records unearthed by the “SPARK” business-analytics system suggest that he was born Ruslan Ganizhev. 

On January 29, Natural Resources and Environment Minister Dmitry Kobylkin announced that he has fired Gorring and reprimanded Gorring’s supervisor, Rosgeo head Roman Panov. Ministry officials also say they aren’t ruling out a formal inquiry into Rosgeo’s top management.

Rosgeo later told reporters that Panov personally terminated the company's contract with Gorring, stating that Kobylkin doesn't have the authority to fire or reprimand its staff. Rosgeo simultaneously argued that it found “no labor violations” in Gorring's behavior or evidence of sexual misconduct or abuse of authority. On January 29, the company's website repeatedly crashed, which spokespeople attributed to a cyberattack.

Gorring told the website RBC that he resigned, defending his antics on Twitch as “personal talk with friends during [his] private time.” Gorring also claimed that the edited footage was released as part of a coordination campaign against him, arguing that “someone” didn't like his “aggressive actions in the company's interests.”

Russia's shrinkflation meme 🥚

On January 8, a photograph of a carton with nine eggs was published on the Russian social portal Pikabu. Russian eggs are usually sold in groups of 10; selling nine eggs at a time would be like selling a carton of 11 in the United States. The photo’s title deadpanned, “A nine of eggs, please.”

In the caption, the author listed several more products that come in strange volumes: “Milk 867 milliliters, mayonnaise 220 milliliters, Coca-Cola not one liter but only 900 milliliters. Now in the New Year it’s the eggs’ turn.” Many have linked the appearance of the nine-egg cartons to rising food prices.

Meduza takes a closer look at this meme of the season: What is this? Where did this practice come from? Why eggs? Read our report here.

Milov says Chechnya's gas debts are really about corruption 💰

In an op-ed for The Insider, former Deputy Energy Minister Vladimir Milov argues that a Grozny court’s recent decision to cancel 9 billion rubles ($135.8 million) in gas debts isn’t what most people think. (Read Meduza's news brief about this here.) Contrary to political rhetoric over the past week, Milov says, households in Russia’s North Caucasus are actually fairly good about paying their utility bills, and payment collection has even exceeded 100 percent in the past few years.

Why then does Gazprom manage to collect just 62 percent of its gas payments in the North Caucasian Federal District (while this figure isn’t lower than 90 percent anywhere else in the country)? Milov attributes the anomaly to two forms of corruption: commercial theft (gas stolen and then charged to ordinary consumers, both living and dead) and theft of the resources allocated to repair the region’s collapsing gas-distribution system, which is leaking more every year.

Milov says it’s difficult to know how this system works in Chechnya, but something similar is presumably operating in Dagestan, which is more transparent. Last April, the website Chernovik (Rough Draft) published an investigative report about locals being charged illegally for stolen gas. By the end of the year, police had arrested two figures named in the report: the former head of Gazprom’s local subsidiary and the company’s Customer Care Department supervisor, who ordered staff to bill clients for gas they never consumed.

In a special statement on January 24, Kadyrov effectively acknowledged that a similar scheme is responsible for Chechnya’s massive debts to Gazprom, admitting that the money owed concerns stolen gas charged to tens of thousands of unknowing customers, including people who moved away from the republic many years ago, people who died in the Chechen Wars, and even nonexistent homes. (Milov says Kadyrov unconvincingly tries to argue that the unpaid bills are wartime debts.) Based on the Chechen ruler’s “guilty tone” and the Federal Attorney General’s investigation into the Grozny district attorney’s office, Milov says Kadyrov apparently overplayed his hand and will have to repay at least some of the money owed to Gazprom.

Despite federal officials’ intervention, gas theft is likely to continue in Russia’s North Caucasus. Milov points out that 40 percent of Gazprom’s complaints to law enforcement in the North Caucasian Federal District lead nowhere, suggesting that the regional security agencies are involved in the gas theft, too.

Finally, Milov argues that Russians outside the North Caucasus should lobby for greater transparency and public oversight in the calculation of fees by utility companies. It is here, Milov warns, where businesses like Gazprom will seek to recover their losses in places like Chechnya and Dagestan, raising “tariffs” on ordinary consumers nationwide.

Read it elsewhere

  • 📸 Want to see rare color photos from the 1980s that “bring to light” the Soviet Union's “hidden war” in Afghanistan? Here are 25 such images. “Jihad By Camera” — RFE/RL
  • 😰 Despite concerns in the U.S. that the lifting of sanctions against aluminum giant United Co. Rusal is a win for Putin, analysts in Russia aren't celebrating, fearing it means Washington has “managed to neutralize one of the Kremlin’s paymasters and influential lobbyists” (Oleg Deripaska). The billionaire's concessions to the United States mean “a significant amount of control over the company has moved into the hands of external forces that aren’t friendly to the Kremlin,” political scientist Valery Solovei claims. “Sanctions Victory for Putin? Few Are Celebrating in Moscow” — Bloomberg
  • 🌴 Life since annexation hasn't been what many Crimeans expected, according to a new report by Sabra Ayres. Not only has the tourism industry suffered, but Moscow has imposed its patented restrictions on political freedom, persecuting pro-Ukraine activists and journalists and chasing tens of thousands out of the peninsula. “Four Years After Russia Annexed Crimea, the Peninsula Remains in Limbo” — The Los Angeles Times

Yours, Meduza