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‘He grasps things very quickly’ Evgeny Prigozhin’s covert bid for power in an unstable Russia — and what he has learned from Alexey Navalny
Article by Andrey Pertsev. Translation by Anna Razumnaya.
As Russia pivots towards regime change, the Wagner Group founder Evgeny Prigozhin is more and more often heard flattering Russia’s frustrated nationalists. In recent weeks, Prigozhin has repeatedly encouraged the people he calls “regular plowmen” in resenting the super-privileged “elites” in Russia’s high offices. Meduza’s special correspondent Andrey Pertsev spoke with Kremlin insiders and political experts about Prigozhin’s recent public attacks on key Russian political figures — and the large-scale political ambitious that might lurk behind Prigozhin’s words.
It would have been difficult not to notice Evgeny Prigozhin’s recent rise to public prominence. Prigozhin’s now frequent appearances in the media are often connected with his public criticisms of Russian politicians and officials. In late October, for example, the Wagner Group founder accused the Russian “elites” of evading mobilization:
No mobilization of the elites has taken place. The oligarchs, and other representatives of the elite, have always lived in boundless comfort, and continue to do so. Until their children go to war, the country will not be fully mobilized.
On November 11, Prigozhin returned to this theme, now contrasting the “elites” with the convicts who join the Wagner Group, Prigozhin’s “private military company”:
The inmates have the highest level of consciousness — much higher than the Russian elites’. This is because the incarcerated are regular plowmen, who had some bad luck in life — and this is why they volunteer on such a massive scale.
This particular remark was an answer to a local journalist’s question about the Wagner Group’s recruitment of inmates in Tyumen. Its jibe at the “elites” might seem less of an accident if put side-by-side with Prigozhin’s comment on the brutal extra-judicial execution of one of his conscripts:
There are traitors who drop their machine guns and go to the enemy side, betraying their own people and their Motherland — but they’re not the only ones. Some of the traitors are sitting tight in their offices, giving no thought to their own people.
Two Kremlin insiders who are personally familiar with Prigozhin think that this pattern of “anti-elite” statements is not coincidental. They believe that Prigozhin is considering the start of a conservative movement that might turn into a full-fledged political party in the future.
If it comes into being, Prigozhin’s potential new movement will be likely to focus around “patriotism and statism.” Its tactics will involve continuous criticism of state bureaucrats and the business sector. Sources who know Prigozhin personally suggest that his inspiration comes from Alexey Navalny and his team’s anti-corruption investigations, which expose corrupt members of the Russian ruling class on a regular basis. A source close to the St. Petersburg administration agrees with this impression of Navalny’s (perhaps unlikely) influence on Prigozhin.
“Prigozhin learns quickly, he grasps things very rapidly,” says one of our sources. “He can very well present himself as a populist demanding equality.”
Sources familiar with Prigozhin suggest that, apart from attacking the elites, he is likely to speculate on cravings for revenge:
He will cultivate a thirst for vengeance, for the military defeats — since, in the end, we’ll win all the same. Who is to blame if we didn’t make it to Kyiv, if we surrendered Kherson? Once again, the elites.
The Kremlin insiders who spoke with Meduza suggest that Evgeny Prigozhin’s efforts are aligned with the aims of two other figures close to Vladimir Putin himself — namely, the Kovalchuk brothers, Mikhail and Yury Kovalchuk. Together with Prigozhin, the Kovalchuk family are now wrestling against the St. Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov. Their relations used to be better, but conflicts over large government contracts around the city allied the Kovalchuks with Prigozhin. Recently, Prigozhin himself filed two official complaints against Beglov, accusing him of organized crime and demanding that Beglov also be investigated for possible treason.
One of the sources close to the Kremlin suggests that Prigozhin is instrumental to the Kovalchuks in their desire to show Putin that they are capable of becoming “key operators in national politics.” Specifically, Prigozhin is useful “in the patriotic segment,” and in demoralizing the elites “so they don’t even think of jumping back from the president.”
In the 2021 State Duma elections, the Kovalchuk brothers sponsored the New People political party, which ultimately made it into the parliament. Around the same time, Prigozhin had similar political projects of his own: he wanted to take control of the nationalist Rodina party, but his plan was foiled when the president’s administration decided not to invest any more resources into Rodina.
Kremlin insiders highlight Prigozhin’s constant contact with Putin since the beginning of the war. Prigozhin is believed to have access to Putin, and to be able to “reach” him. Although it’s unclear whether Prigozhin talks to Putin about his political ambitions, in theory, if he did have such ambitions, they might well be endorsed by the Kremlin.
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A source close to the administration thinks that Prigozhin’s politics is “a niche project, calibrated for the ultra-patriotic majority who, at the same time, do not fully support the regime, and are critical of the elites, the bureaucracy, and the business sector.” Prigozhin’s growing influence, the same source adds, may very well trouble some of the the higher-ups in the state security and law enforcement organs.
The Russian political scientist Ivan Preobrazhensky tells Meduza that “under certain circumstances” Prigozhin could appeal to Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s former audience,
the Russia of depressed towns and cities, with people educated in trade schools and a huge social segment of people who have a highly specific prison mentality. The majority of these people, from criminal subculture adepts to the actual incarcerated people and their prison guards, have the same mentality as the numerous Russian law-enforcement class.
Another political scientist, Konstantin Kalachev, thinks that Prigozhin’s rhetoric already resembles Zhirinovsky’s: “Nationalist populism in a frustrated society begins as a farce — but now, things can grow serious — they can be amped up.”
Ivan Preobrazhensky is skeptical about Prigozhin’s chances of great electoral success — but he also thinks that none might be needed. “The situation in the country is moving in the direction of power being seized by force.”
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