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‘Putin's chef’ is reportedly trying to take control of St. Petersburg's coming gubernatorial election

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.

Cartoon Putin takes Alexander Beglov to a St. Petersburg pharmacy to verify that all the necessary medications are in stock. The president is pleased.

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.

Dozhd report by Olga Churakova

Summary by Kevin Rothrock