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Nobody needs another Prigozhin ‘Putin’s chef’ reportedly wants to expand his political influence and maybe even win a seat in Russia’s Parliament

Source: Meduza

Evgeny Prigozhin, the Russian catering oligarch who allegedly owns a private military company and an Internet troll empire, wants to become an elected politician and he plans to use the “Rodina” party as his ticket into the State Duma, two sources close to the Putin administration and one person inside Prigozhin’s own inner circle told Meduza. Asked about his own political ambitions, however, Prigozhin denies any wish to become a federal lawmaker, and he even has a special message for the people reading this very article.

Sources close to the Kremlin told Meduza that Evgeny Prigozhin is entertaining several options in the next phase of his political expansion. “He’s thinking about promoting his own people to the federal parliament and he’s considering the creation of his own influence group there,” says one person with ties to the Putin administration, adding that Prigozhin might even run for office himself. The vehicle for this new electoral gambit would be the “Rodina” political party, which already collaborated with Prigozhin and his acolytes this September during the State Council race in Russia’s Komi Republic. Rodina won a respectable 9 percent in the region’s elections with a party list headed by Prigozhin-ally Maxim Shugaley. Evgeny Prigozhin has allegedly been in talks with Rodina’s leadership about fielding some of his own people as candidates in the 2021 parliamentary elections.

Russians will vote on new State Duma deputies on September 19, 2021. Half of the Parliament’s 450 deputies are elected by party lists, while the other half of the legislature’s seats are allocated to the winners of single-mandate contests. Following the results of recent nationwide regional elections, 16 political parties (including Rodina) will not have to collect large numbers of signatures otherwise required to field party lists and single-mandate candidates in next year’s elections. Though the elections are still almost a year away, some politicians have already started campaigning for the State Duma. For example, oppositionist and Anti-Corruption Foundation attorney Lyubov Sobol announced last week that she will run for a seat in Parliament. You can even read her campaign platform today. 

A source familiar with Prigozhin told Meduza that the oligarch seeks just a single representative in the State Duma, whom he plans to nominate from the Rodina party. “The [Prigozhin empire] has no grand plan [for the State Duma]. As always, there’s maza and that’s it. It’s basically ‘I’ll have my own deputy and that’ll be cool,’” says Meduza’s source.

A source inside Rodina confirmed to Meduza that the party is cooperating with Evgeny Prigozhin and will give him first consideration “if he makes a final decision about moving [into politics and the State Duma].” The same individual struggled, however, to name anyone the oligarch might actually nominate for a parliamentary campaign, noting that Prigozhin’s entourage currently lacks any “serious, well-known, and memorable people.” One member of this group stands out — Alexander Malkevich, a regular guest on TV talk shows, a member of Russia’s Civic Chamber, and a manager at the “Patriot” media group (where Prigozhin chairs the board of trustees) — but he would likely join United Russia’s ticket if he decides to run for a seat in the State Duma, says Meduza’s source.

Alexander Malkevich has, in fact, expressed an interest in politics. Earlier this year, he was a finalist in the Kremlin-organized “Leaders of Russia” management competition. Malkevich told Meduza that he might seek candidacy in next year’s legislative elections if he believes he can be useful to “a team of like-minded people,” but it’s still too early to say for certain. Asked which party’s nomination he would prefer, Malkevich answered, “I’d like to run with a party of common sense that shares my ideas.” He also says he’s been getting certain “signals” about a possible nomination, but he declined to reveal any further details.

A source close to the Putin administration told Meduza that the Kremlin will likely use Evgeny Prigozhin as an ultra-patriot battering ram — “as a warrior against the West and the opposition, and it’s already started doing this.” In fact, the press service for the Concord company, which belongs to Prigozhin, recently started responding to media inquiries with statements attributed directly to its owner, breaking with its past approach to distancing itself from Prigozhin. The oligarch’s public comments, moreover, have often been inflammatory, and Prigozhin’s own media group, “Patriot” (which includes websites like The Federal News Agency, Narodnye Novosti, and others), has dutifully recirculated his remarks.

In October, for example, Great Britain and the European Union imposed sanctions against Prigozhin for his alleged role in Russian mercenary activity abroad. His response was colorfully on-brand: “Sanctions are awful. It’s like having crabs and not knowing it. Like little spy-crabs. Thanks to the true and just American sanctions, vendors who recognize me in stores have stopped selling me bread. Earlier today, my last two employees — the janitor and my driver — finally left me. Thank God Navalny didn’t croak or I’d be completely alone. I can only hope that he’ll return [from Germany], overcome any fears of my sanctions dependence, and be with me forever. Get well soon, dear Alexey-Novichok!” 

Though he’s been obsessed mostly with anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny, Prigozhin also finds time to harass other opposition figures, for example, vowing to sue them until they’re “house-trained” and have “learned to whimper under the door” to go outside. 

Approached for comments about this article, Evgeny Prigozhin responded in character, telling Meduza

“I have no plans to enter politics or to cooperate with political parties. I have no wish to become a State Duma deputy. I also advise no one to become a client of Meduza in the opposition bloc [sic]. Taking this opportunity, I’ll make the following appeal to the comrade liberals who make up your regular audience: Don’t try to get into the State Duma. It’s not for you. You won’t be able to steal a fucking thing and you’ll just end up with lots of hemorrhoids.”

One of Prigozhin’s personal acquaintances told Meduza that the oligarch started thinking seriously about political influence roughly three years ago when he urged Nikolai Tsukanov (then the presidential envoy to Russia’s Northwestern Federal District, now Putin’s envoy to the Ural Federal District) to conduct socio-political monitoring in the region ahead of the 2018 presidential election, in order to boost voter turnout. Tsukanov liked the idea. “That’s when the power of political spin machines dawned on Prigozhin,” says a source close to the Kremlin. One consultant who collaborated with Prigozhin at the time says the oligarch’s political strategists actually encouraged him to create his own party, but he declined. After the monitoring experiment in Russia’s Northwestern Federal District, Prigozhin redeployed his spin doctors to countries in Africa. 

The catering mogul never abandoned domestic politics, however. Last year, his strategists assisted Alexander Beglov’s gubernatorial bid in St. Petersburg and ran smear campaigns against opposition candidates in the Moscow City Duma elections. These efforts, moreover, were at Prigozhin’s own private initiative, say Meduza’s sources in the Putin administration and individuals with ties to Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin. 

“Nobody tasked them with anything. In Petersburg and, yes, also in Moscow, they actually interfered with the main headquarters and ended up confusing things. But it can be difficult to say ‘that’s enough’ to Prigozhin,” a source close to the Kremlin told Meduza.

Someone who knows Prigozhin personally told Meduza that he thrives on “hype,” which makes his growing interest in politics only natural: “In fact, he’s cut from the same cloth as [“Tinkoff Bank” owner Oleg] Tinkov — a world-wise businessman from the 90s.”

Though Evgeny Prigozhin’s interest in elected office has been developing steadily for years now, a source close to the Putin administration told Meduza that the president’s domestic policy team might finally begin to push back “gently” against the oligarch’s political ambitions. “If someone with sufficient influence and a direct line to the president gets control over a party that is exempt from collecting signatures to field State Duma candidates, then it could become a vehicle for others like Prigozhin — regional businessmen who came up in the 90s. Of course, nobody needs that,” says Meduza’s source.

Story by Andrey Pertsev

Translation by Kevin Rothrock

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