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Prigozhin’s patriot An oligarch-linked political strategist is running in Russia’s regional elections despite being imprisoned in Libya

Source: Meduza
Maxim Shugaley’s Facebook page

Political consultants associated with Evgeny Prigozhin — the catering magnate with alleged ties to mercenaries, troll factories, and Vladimir Putin — are campaigning for the “Rodina” political party’s nominees ahead of regional parliamentary elections in Russia’s Komi Republic. Prigozhin apparently has a vested interest in seeing Rodina’s candidates succeed: first on the party list is another political strategist, Maxim Shugaley, who was working in Libya on Prigozhin’s behalf when Shugaley was imprisoned in July 2019. Meduza’s sources say being elected as a regional deputy could help facilitate his repatriation (though it’s not entirely clear how). Spokespeople for Rodina and Prigozhin deny the oligarch’s direct involvement in the campaign, but his representatives also maintain that he “warmly supports” Maxim Shugaley.

Ahead of Russia’s unified day of voting on September 13, the bulk of Evgeny Prigozhin’s team of political consultants (the ones devoted to his domestic political projects) are campaigning on behalf of the Rodina (“Motherland”) party in Russia’s Komi Republic — preparing the party’s nominees for the elections to the region’s parliament, known as the State Council. The party list is headed by another political strategist, Maxim Shugaley, who didn’t have any connections to the region, until now.

Shugaley has been part of Prigozhin’s pool of consultants (or, as they’re called in Russian, “political technologists”) for a long time. He worked on the businessman’s so-called African projects: structures linked to Prigozhin have been monitoring the situation in a number of African countries since the end of 2017, organizing sociological research and acting as consultants for candidates seen as pro-Russian during elections.

Maxim Shugaley was arrested in Libya in July 2019 (along with his driver, a Russian national named Samer Sueyfan). Libya is still embroiled in a civil war between the Government of National Accord (which is supported by a number of Western countries) and the Libyan National Army under commander-in-chief Marshal Khalifa Haftar (supported by Russia). Shugaley was suspected of secretly meeting with Saif al-Islam Gaddafi — the son of late Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. The younger Gaddafi also opposes the Government of National Accord. Officially, Shugaley was in Libya conducting sociological research for the Foundation for National Values Protection (another organization close to Evgeny Prigozhin). 

“Prigozhin and his people think Shugaley’s nomination and entry into the Komi State Council will give the strategist a new status. He will no [longer] be just a Russian national, but a deputy, therefore the Foreign Ministry and for some reason the Defense Ministry, [or] so they [Prigozhin and his people] think, will act more actively in the negotiations for his release,” says a Meduza source close to the regional administration in Komi.

Shugaley’s nomination from the Rodina Party and Evgeny Prigozhin’s political strategists’ work on the Rodina Party’s campaign was agreed upon with Putin’s Executive Office, says Meduza’s source from the regional deputy corps. This information was also confirmed by a person close to the Putin administration’s internal political bloc. At the same time, the source specifies that the Kremlin didn’t give Prigozhin any guarantees about the Rodina Party’s candidates entering the regional parliament as a result of the elections (this would still require the Rodina Party to pass the five percent threshold). 

“It’s not very clear why Shugaley having the status of a Komi deputy would force the Foreign Ministry to somehow specially step in for him. How is a regional deputy so different from an ordinary citizen? But the prigozhintsy [Prigozhin’s people] don’t think this way. It’s even doubtful that Shugaley will be able to physically receive this mandate at all — seeing as he’s imprisoned in Libya. But Prigozhin always has some idea of his own, his own games,” says Meduza’s source in Putin’s administration.

According to him, during the negotiations with the Presidential Executive Office, Evgeny Prigozhin’s people mentioned that in the event that the Rodina Party gets past the five percent threshold, the head of the republican executive committee of the pro-Putin All Russia People’s Front (ONF), Elena Ivanova, would also become a deputy. They referred to her as “a person widely recognized” in the region. “But even this is still up in the air. A lot of parties are campaigning, whether Rodina will get the five percent is the question. The priority [for Putin’s administration] is the new Green Alternative party overcoming the barrier,” says Meduza’s interlocutor from the Presidential Administration. 

According to several sources close to Putin’s administration, Green Alternative is part of a pool of new political forces that were created with the Kremlin’s support at the beginning of this year (this list includes, for example, the For Truth party led by nationalist writer Zakhar Prilepin, who fought on behalf of the Russian-backed separatists in the war in Eastern Ukraine). According to the authorities’ plan, the “greens” are supposed to “drain the ecological opposition.” Artist Vasya Lozhkin is considered Green Alternative’s informal leader.

Meanwhile, Prigozhin and his people are convinced that Rodina’s candidates will make it into Komi’s State Council. Spin doctors Pytor Bychkov and Igor Osadchy are overseeing the campaign (Bychkov is responsible for Prigozhin’s domestic projects, while Osadchy handles his strategic political projects overseas).

Shugaley’s photo was featured on the front page of Rodina’s party newspaper and there’s a booklet dedicated to his biography titled “A Hero of Our Time” (a reference to the classic Russian novel written by Mikhail Lermontov in the nineteenth century). The biography refers to Shugaley as the first person to “warn the Muscovites” about Shiyes. “Maxim Shugaley worked in the Komi Republic in 2016. He conducted research here on public opinion and studied how northern people relate to nature. A few years before Shiyes, he warned the Muscovites that nature is sacred for Russians. And that a wall will rise up against the construction of a landfill. The Moscow clients weren’t satisfied with this conclusion, they demanded he rewrite it. But Maxim Shugaley refused to do this,” the authors of the booklet claim (a Meduza source close to the Moscow Mayor’s Office denies that Shugaley was commissioned to do any such research). Shugaley’s biography doesn’t mention any of his work for Prigozhin; it simply notes that he went to Libya “on Rodina’s instructions,” but in the end, “representatives of one of the factions” seized him in downtown Tripoli. 

According to Marina Kostycheva, the chair of Rodina’s political council’s presidium, “the idea to nominate Shugaley to the Komi State Council arose among the party after the release of the NTV film Shugaley” — in which Prigozhin’s spin doctor is presented as a Russian academic illegally arrested in Libya.

“Party chairman Alexey Zhuravlev and Alexander Malkievich [the head of the Foundation for National Values Protection] discussed the possibility of nominating Shugaley so as not to harm the process of the prisoners’ release,” Kostycheva says (presumably referring to both Shugaley and his driver). “The position of protecting compatriots abroad has been key for the Rodina Party and the Congress of Russian Communities since the 1990s. In the Komi Republic, the branch includes members of public organizations for veterans of the war in Afghanistan and other conflicts, therefore party members were enthusiastic about the party’s desire to help with Maxim Shugaley’s release.” 

Asked about cooperation with Prigozhin’s political consultants, Kostycheva answered as follows: “Employees of both the federal party apparatus and our regional party members worked on the campaign preparations in Komi. Running the campaign itself was entrusted to Irina Osadcheva as an experienced political strategist, who worked in the Russian North — in Komi and the [Nenets Autonomous Okrug]. I don’t know about her connections to the ‘Prigozhin’ network of political strategists [or] about the very existence of such a network.”

A source close to the regional authorities in Komi claims that all local campaign work is being financed by Prigozhin himself. “Prigozhin always pays [for things] himself — with the expectation that the project will somehow pay off later. But he has no interests in Komi, except for the memories of his youth spent here,” says Meduza’s source, sarcastically (in 1979 Prigozhin received a suspended sentence for theft, and from 1981 to 1990 he served time in a minimum security prison colony for robbery, fraud, and “enticing minors into prostitution”; he spent the last years of his sentence in an open prison in Komi). 

A source close to the Putin administration assumes that Prigozhin’s strategists could be training on a regional campaign, counting on larger projects coming up next year in connection with State Duma elections. “Komi is a difficult protest region, you can learn and then, [when] offering your services, showcase your successes in the republic. If you have something to show, of course,” the source says. 

Spokespeople for Evgeny Prigozhin’s company, Concord M, told Meduza that the businessman “doesn’t have any connection to the Rodina party’s election campaign in the Komi Republic and isn’t cooperating with political strategists.”

“Evgeny Viktorovich [Prigozhin] warmly supports Shugaley and believes that he’s a patriot of Russia who will be released and bring enormous benefits to his country,” Concord’s press service added. “Shugaley was kidnapped with the help of some members of the so-called liberal opposition, and is being held by militants from the Rada faction, which is linked to Al-Qaeda terrorists (banned in the [Russian Federation]). Patriots like Shugaley, unlike pro-Western, liberal-talkers, know how to endure hardships and cope with difficulties. For many, he has already become a symbol of resilience, courage, and the fight against terrorism.”

Concord published this very same comment on its page on the Russian social network VKontakte prior to the publication of this report. This is a common practice for the company when dealing with the media.

Story by Andrey Pertsev

Translation by Eilish Hart

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