Trump-Russia collusion investigations

Who is Yevgeny Prigozhin? ‘Putin’s chef’ among 13 Russians indicted by Mueller for US election meddling

He and his companies provided significant funding to the agency that allegedly used bogus social media postings and advertisements to influence the White House race

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 February, 2018, 4:59pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 February, 2018, 10:10pm

He is known as “Putin’s chef” – a wealthy Russian businessman and restaurateur who gained favour with Vladimir Putin through his stomach.

On Friday, Yevgeny Prigozhin – along with 12 other Russians and three Russian organisations – was charged by the US government as part of a vast and wide-ranging effort to sway political opinion during the 2016 US presidential election. According to the indictment, Prigozhin and his companies provided significant funding to the Internet Research Agency, a St Petersburg-based group that allegedly used bogus social media postings and advertisements fraudulently bought in the name of Americans to influence the White House race.

“Americans are very impressionable people; they see what they want to see,” Prigozhin was quoted as saying Friday on Russian state news agency RIA-Novosti.

“I treat them with great respect. I’m not at all upset that I’m on this list. If they want to see the devil, let them see him.”

A one-time hot dog stand owner, Prigozhin opened one of the swankiest restaurants in St Petersburg and drew interest from Putin. During his first term in office, Putin took then-French President Jacques Chirac to dine at one of Prigozhin’s restaurants.

“Vladimir Putin saw how I built a business out of a kiosk, he saw that I don’t mind serving to the esteemed guests because they were my guests,” Prigozhin recalled in an interview published on the 812 Online website in 2011.

Over the years Prigozhin’s businesses have expanded significantly.

In 2010, Putin attended the inaugural ceremony of Prigozhin’s factory making school lunches outside St Petersburg which was built on generous loans by a state bank. In the Russian capital alone, his company Concord won 1.6 billion roubles (US$27 million) in contacts to provide meals at public schools. Prigozhin has also organised catering for Kremlin events for several years and has provided catering and utility services to the Russian military.

The US State Department put Prigozhin on its sanctions list last December along with other individuals for “having materially assisted, sponsored, or provided financial, material, or technological support for, or goods or services in support of, senior officials of the Russian Federation”. It added he has “extensive business dealings” with the Russian Defence Ministry.

Last year, the anti-corruption foundation run by opposition leader Alexei Navalny detailed how firms controlled by Prigozhin broke antitrust laws by bidding for 23 billion roubles (US$387 million) worth in Defence Ministry contracts. Prigozhin’s companies would have had to face hefty fines and barred from bidding at future auctions, but the antitrust agency delivered a surprise ruling in November, closing the case and ruling not to fine Prigozhin’s firms because they pleaded guilty to the charges.

“There’s Putin. He wants to steal our money, and he gives his friend and confidante a chunk of the defence ministry’s budget that steals money from for himself and Putin,” Navalny says. “And when someone finds out about it and proves it, Putin has special agencies … that in the actual fact are covering up for all those thieves.”

Among the firms linked to Prigozhin is Evro Polis, a Moscow-registered company that the respected news site Fontanka reported has become a front for operations in Syria by an alleged contractor of mercenaries to fight in the country. In 2016, Evro Polis listed the sale of food products as its core activities, according to the Spark Interfax database. But in 2017, it listed mining, oil and gas production, and opened an office in the Syrian capital of Damascus.

Based in St Petersburg, Putin’s hometown, the Russian Internet Research Agency employs bloggers and online commentators to influence public opinion in Russia and abroad.

The US government indictment says it bought internet advertisements in the names of Americans whose identities they had stolen, staged political rallies while posing as American political activists and paid people in the US to promote or disparage candidates.

They started out by posting pro-Russian or controversial comments on social media and popular websites and then developed more sophisticated tactics.

Analysts and journalists found that some of the accounts – such as the now-deleted and rabidly pro-Trump @TEN_GOP – accrued national followings and were retweeted by a range of figures as well as several members of Trump’s team, including ex-National Security Adviser General Michael Flynn, Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway and one of Trump’s sons, Donald Trump Jnr.

Soon enough, the agency funded by the former hot dog stand owner was organising flesh-and-blood protests on American soil and being promoted by some of the most senior politicians in the land.