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He said, he said ‘Meduza’ fact-checks reports that ‘Putin’s chef’ met with opposition leader Navalny

Meduza
Evgeny Prigozhin
Evgeny Prigozhin
Alexander Zemlyanichenko/ AP / Scanpix / LETA

The claim

“Evgeny Viktorovich [Prigozhin] said that one of the topics discussed was Alexey Navalny’s offer to put a stop to his [Anti-Corruption Foundation’s] attacks on the school lunch issue in exchange for loyalty to Navalny’s team in St. Petersburg’s municipal elections. Evgeny Viktorovich answered him by saying, “I wouldn’t trade a soldier for a marshal.”

This is how the press service for Prigozhin’s company Concord responded when the BBC Russian Service asked about rumors that the entrepreneur, whose presidential ties have gained him fame in English as “Putin’s chef,” had met with Russia’s leading opposition politician in St. Petersburg. Rumors of a meeting appeared when an anonymous channel on the messaging site Telegram published two photographs showing Prigozhin in one image and Navalny in the other with both men at the entrance to the hotel Sokos. The channel’s moderator claimed that the two had met the night before. Navalny responded by denying that a meeting had taken place, saying he had visited St. Petersburg only to open his local campaign office in advance of the city’s elections.

A number of Russian news sources quoted the BBC and spread Prigozhin’s version of events. In the process, they ignored many of Russia’s largest wire services and most of its major news sources.

Did that quote really come from Prigozhin’s press service?

Yes, but even that isn’t an entirely straightforward question. The BBC received its response from the address “press-mail@inbox.ru,” which contains no indication that it belongs to Prigozhin himself or to his company, Concord. The company has its own domains, concord-catering.ru and concord-moscow.ru, but it does use addresses with the inbox.ru domain for business dealings with the Russian government. The BBC explained that it sent an email to the inbox.ru address because “[a] source close to Evgeny Prigozhin advised us to use that particular email address to contact his company’s press service.”

Corresponding statements apparently issued by Prigozhin’s press service are also available on social media. At the end of January, when the investigative news source The Bell published a lengthy report on Prigozhin’s alleged ties to the Wagner private military company, a group appeared on the social media site VKontakte with the title “Concord Company Press Service.” Both questions from journalists and answers to them appear on the group’s page. The published responses mention a variety of legal entities that Prigozhin directs, including Concord Management and Consulting, Concord Food Production, and Concord as a whole.

What reason is there to doubt what Prigozhin’s press service said?

Prigozhin’s account of a meeting with Navalny is suspicious for three main reasons. First, Navalny responded to the press service’s claims immediately, saying, “Prigozhin is lying, and there was no meeting.” Prigozhin himself did not provide any evidence that the meeting took place. The result is a “he said, he said” situation — neither position is better argued or more convincing.

Second, on February 3, Prigozhin’s press service refused to answer questions related to his alleged meeting with Navalny. However, on the very next day, it sent an entirely different response to the BBC. Why Prigozhin’s position changed is unclear.

Finally, in its responses to other questions, Prigozhin’s press service appeared to be trolling journalists. When The Bell attempted to follow up on the story of the meeting, a spokesperson responded off the record with comments supposedly made by Prigozhin himself. Those comments nonetheless appeared on the Concord VKontakte page: “I don’t read your little bell either. It’s one of those bulls**t foreign media sources, so I hope they just f*** off.” Novaya Gazeta journalist Irina Dolinina was told to look for corruption “among your own Yankees” after she said she was working for an anti-corruption organization that partners with Novaya Gazeta. That comment also came with a dose of profanity-laden idioms.

When the BBC asked Prigozhin’s press service to prove that its director had met with Navalny, a spokesperson responded with a saying once again. This time, the press service wrote that Prigozhin does not keep a record of his business meetings and explained, “Do not do to others what you would not have done to you.”

Mikhail Zelensky

Translation by Hilah Kohen