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Prigozhin’s lesser war Now a ‘full-fledged member of Putin’s inner circle,’ the Wagner Group’s founder wages a crusade against St. Petersburg’s loyalist governor, Alexander Beglov. What does this mean for the future of Putin’s regime?
Article by Andrey Pertsev. Translation by Anna Razumnaya.
Evgeny Prigozhin, once casually referred to as “Putin’s chef,” is steadily climbing the greasy pole of Russian power. Meduza has already written about Prigozhin’s rise to Putin’s favor, thanks to the Wagner Group — his para-official “private military company” — and about his alliance with the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, in opposition to the Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu. In this article, Meduza’s special correspondent Andrey Pertsev tells the story of Prigozhin’s conflict with another key player in Putin’s government — Alexander Beglov, St. Petersburg’s acting governor. The power struggle between Beglov and Prigozhin, Andrey Pertsev suggests, may play a part in shaping the future of Putin’s regime.
Evgeny Prigozhin has long wanted Alexander Beglov to resign from his post as the governor of St. Petersburg. This animosity had to do with Beglov’s reluctance to contract Prigozhin and his businesses for large state-funded projects in the region. In the past, Prigozhin tried to pressure Beglov by encouraging inconvenient media coverage of the governor’s various shortcomings. Now, Prigozhin is doing something bolder: he has filed a complaint against Beglov with the Russian Attorney General, accusing him of setting up a “criminal association.”
On October 31, the press service of Concord, Prigozhin’s catering company that often acts as his mouthpiece, published a statement, in which Prigozhin himself said that he had
sent to the Attorney General of the Russian Federation a petition requesting an inquiry into the possibility of the creation, by Governor A. D. Beglov, of a criminal association on St. Petersburg territory for the purpose of looting the state budget and enriching the corrupt officials in his own circle.
A Kremlin insider who spoke with Meduza suggests that this isn’t just a random move. Before the war, Prigozhin’s means for pressuring the inconvenient governor were limited to generating bad press about Beglov’s administration. The war, however, has elevated Prigozhin in Putin’s eyes, dramatically expanding his possibilities. Despite the fact that the Wagner Group and its mercenaries are accused of numerous war crimes, Putin considers the “private military company” and its involvement in Ukraine a success.
Two different sources close to the Kremlin now think of Prigozhin as a “full-fledged member of Putin’s inner circle” and someone who “has Putin’s ear.” “He isn’t just an errand boy charged with some unpleasant tasks. Prigozhin is considered an effective war manager, and a liberator of the LNR,” said one of our sources.
Last summer, the media reported that Prigozhin had been awarded the Hero of Russia title, and the iconic “golden star” that comes with it. Neither Prigozhin himself nor the Kremlin press service confirmed these reports, but since then Prigozhin was seen wearing a badge that, judging from a distance, might very well be that golden star.
Against that backdrop, Prigozhin’s media profile is rising to a new kind of political prominence. His alliance with Ramzan Kadyrov, in opposition to the Defense Ministry and to Sergey Shoigu, is well known. More recently, it was, once again, Prigozhin who called the Russian government to block YouTube in Russia, and to sanction Google an “undesirable organization.” Earlier this month, The Washington Post reported that Prigozhin was the one person who dared to tell Putin about the Russian command’s “mistakes” in the war against Ukraine.
One of Meduza’s sources close to the Kremlin is convinced that Prigozhin is intent on revenge against Beglov, and determined to drive him to resign from the governor’s post. Another source elaborates this, by pointing out that Prigozhin knows very well the rules of the Russian political game, and understands that his influence is on the rise. Still, it’s early to speak of a large-scale split within Russia’s elites at large. Instead, it’s a matter of Prigozhin simply conveying to Putin that “something’s supposedly going very badly in his home city.”
Another source close to the St. Petersburg administration agrees with this description of how things stand. In the past, that source suggests, Beglov and his administration tried to rise above personal attacks, ignoring Prigozhin’s efforts to undermine the governor. Lately, this has changed: Beglov and his people now sense that Prigozhin has become a “fairly serious threat.”
This has pushed Beglov and his circle to establish an informal “HQ for countering Prigozhin.” This group is made up of officials from Beglov’s inner circle — for example, Alexander Belsky, speaker of the city’s Legislative Assembly and former deputy governor for interior politics; and Deputy Governor Boris Piotrovsky, whose duties include managing the city’s public relations. (Neither of them have responded to Meduza’s queries.)
Their strategy for “countering Prigozhin” comes down to enlisting the media in making a case that Prigozhin is “violating the chain of command, meddling in state governance, engaging in power gerrymandering,” and generally acting power-hungry, as described by our source in the St. Petersburg administration.
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At the same time, the Kremlin insiders we talked to are certain that Beglov needn’t be afraid of getting fired in the near future, since his PR campaigns are saturated with war propaganda, and actively promote St. Petersburg’s “patronage” of Mariupol, the Ukrainian city demolished by the Russian armed forces. Alexander Beglov has more than once travelled to Mariupol; his St. Petersburg administration oversees the Russian-led restoration of the city’s infrastructure.
The president likes what Beglov is doing, and is completely satisfied. Beglov is in no way immersed into the frontline agenda — but he’s an old acquaintance of the president. And he’s found a way to fit into the current agenda of “rebuilding the Donbas,”
says a source close to the President’s Office.
Still, today, when commenting on his earlier announcement, Prigozhin publicly called Beglov to resign — and to take part in a new election, to see “how many Petersburgians would entrust you with continuing to govern.” When asked by a journalist whether he might like to formalize his own role in Russian politics, Prigozhin replied:
I never planned, and do not plan on holding any government office, and even if I were offered it, I think I would decline.
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