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Kremlin Fixer Behind Campaign Against Pro-Democracy Leaders in Russia
8 January, 2020
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Photo: Petr Saruhanov Novaya Gazeta

Kremlin-linked fixer Yevgeny Prigozhin worked to compromise pro-democracy leaders ahead of the 2019 Moscow City Duma Elections. This has been exposed by an investigation from Hromadske’s partner outlet, Novaya Gazeta

The report is based on leaked documents, which revealed how individuals linked to Prigozhin were given a detailed plan to smear and sabotage independent candidate Lubov Sobol – a lawyer for Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation who is also one of the most well-known faces of Russia’s pro-democracy protests abroad. 

Lubov Sobol (second from left) after her detention in Moscow, Russia on July 14, 2019. Photo: Alexei Navalny's Facebook page

(Tweet reads: Tomorrow the Tagansk Court will immediately consider 2 new administrative charges in regards to me for the summer protests on August 10 and 31. The evidence of my dangerous behavior is on the photos (in the case materials.) It seems that they weren't able to find anything else against me.)

In the lead up to the Moscow City Duma Elections, the Prigozhin-owned media group Patriot was broadcasting daily self-described investigations aimed at “exposing the provocations” that opposition candidates were allegedly carrying out. 

According to Novaya Gazeta, all of these misleading reports were part of a multi-million rouble disinformation campaign that pseudo-journalists performed on Prigozhin’s behalf. The leaked files revealed a variety of incriminating materials, including photos and handwritten documents, like payment receipts. 

The leak also included a detailed action plan called the “Sobol Hunt,” which uncovered ploys for attacks on members of her political headquarters, agents infiltrating her team, regular police detentions, complaints to government watchdogs and other provocations.

Oppositionists Ilya Yashin, Lubov Sobol (second from left in the center) in Moscow, Russia on July 14, 2019. Photo: Alexei Navalny's Facebook page

Sobol’s headquarters confirmed that many of these measures were implemented. Since then, Novaya Gazeta has transferred the documents to Russia’s Investigative Committee to initiate criminal proceedings for the obstruction of electoral activities. 

Backstory

Between the mass anti-government protests, the controversial sentences handed out in the Moscow Case and the widespread movement in support of political prisoners, the 2019 Moscow City Duma elections resulted in the largest political crisis Russia has seen in years. And the fact that Kremlin-linked fixer Yevgeny Prigozhin is playing a role comes as no surprise. 

A former hot-dog salesman turned billionaire businessman, Prigozhin is known for his links to the Russian president and often called “Putin’s chef” because of the chain of restaurants he owned in the Kremlin. 

Today, he is leading Putin’s expansion in Africa and is associated with the Wagner Group; a private military contract known to operate in a number of countries, ranging from Syria to the Central African Republic. Sources believe that Prigozhin’s people could be involved in attacks on activists, as well as the murder of Russian journalists Orkhan Djemal, Kirill Radchenko and Aleksandr Rastorguev in the Central African Republic in July 2018.  

READ MORE: Russian Mercenary Identified in Graphic Syria War Crime Video

Prigozhin is also under sanctions from the United States for his affiliation with the so-called Internet Research Agency, aka the St. Petersburg “troll factory” – a company engaged in disruptive commenting and influence campaigns on social networks. 

The U.S. sanctions targeted Prigozhin’s assets, including three airplanes and a yacht, among other things. However, these sanctioned aircrafts have been taking flights to a number of destinations, says a recent investigation from Novaya Gazeta and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) – places that play a key role in Putin’s expanding economic and political presence in Africa, as well as the Kremlin’s quest to prop-up tyrants around the world.

READ MORE: “Putin’s Chef” Has Sanctioned Jets Flying To Strange Destinations

Novaya Gazeta has faced attacks from Prigozhin for the better part of a decade. The leak for the anti-Sobol campaign revealed that his affiliates were behind a 2017 attack on their journalist Yulia Latynina, as well. A receipt from one of Prigozhin’s companies revealed that they paid 130 thousand roubles (over $2,000) to have Latynina doused in excrement.


Disinformation Campaigns

Ahead of the Moscow City Duma elections, the authorities banned independent candidates from running on the grounds that they had falsified campaign signatures. The Prigozhin-linked media outlet known as the Federal News Agency or RIA FAN (part of the aforementioned Patriot media group) stoked these claims, releasing a story on June 29, 2019, which falsified evidence of an underground workshop for stamping fake voter signatures to nominate Lubov Sobol as a candidate.

According to the disinformation story, police found an apartment set up as an office, where three young people allegedly falsified signatures “for Sobol.” Novaya Gazeta gained access to photo evidence from the same location dated before the release of the RIA FAN disinformation campaign, which showed people setting up the fake campaign office. 

Novaya Gazeta journalists identified the man in the photo as political strategist Igor Mangushev, who was previously known as an Orthodox activist and a member of the “Safe Internet League” (a government-affiliated “NGO” styled as a watchdog for child sexual abuse images online). Most notably, Mangushev is also a former member of the now-banned E.N.O.T. Corp; a far-right paramilitary group that fought for the Russian-backed separatists in Eastern Ukraine.

Igor Mangushev, ex-member of far-right paramilitary organization E.N.O.T. Corp

In a conversation with Novaya Gazeta about the leaked documents, Mangushev admitted that he worked on the Moscow elections, but refused to name who hired him. However, he did disclose that his team was behind the “false signature factories for the opposition” that were set up in several apartments.

I’m a contractor. But I wasn’t a full-time employee on this project,” he said.

A handwritten receipt bearing Mangushev's signature, stating that he had received 300,000 roubles (approx. $4,900) for the 'Lubov' series of actions

Mangushev did not deny having worked at Prigozhin’s “troll factory” in 2013, but he now considers himself an “independent media technologist” for hire. Mangushev claimed that he never directly contacted anyone from Prigozhin’s companies over the course of the project, but admitted to working with pseudo-journalists from RIA FAN for the disinformation campaigns. 

According to a receipt, he was paid 300 thousand roubles (about $4,800) for the so-called “‘Lubov’ series of actions” – which involved producing the fake news video about opposition leaders Lubov Sobol and Ilya Yashin falsifying campaign signatures. 

What’s more, Mangushev is not the only one who was paid thousands of dollars to carry out projects within the Prigozhin-backed campaign. In another project from the Patriot media group, Arseny Shipilenko, a former activist from Lubov Sobol’s headquarters who supposedly became disillusioned with the political opposition, brought his story to RIA FAN. 

Screenshot of a video of Arseny Shipilenko's 'revelations', spread by the Prigozhin-owned RIA FAN

Shipilenko was among the volunteers at the Sobol campaign headquarters before signature collection began (he can even be seen in some campaign videos).

Claiming to be a sociologist, he became active in the campaign’s sociological department, but refused to work as a signature collector. He later appeared in the aforementioned “expose” from inside the Sobol campaign. 

Arseny Shipilenko with girls from the youth wing of the ruling United Russia party

According to Novaya Gazeta, leaked receipts revealed that Shipilenko likely received at least 850 thousand roubles (nearly $14 thousand) for his work undermining Russian opposition politicians. 

Novaya Gazeta was unable to reach Shipilenko for a comment, and when asked about the aforementioned activities involving Shipilenko, Igor Mangushev replied, “No comment.” 

Paid Protesters

On August 31, 2019, RIA FAN released another disinformation campaign: about a cabin in Mytishchi (a city northeast of Moscow) where the opposition allegedly brought young people from the regions to stay so they could participate in unsanctioned rallies – for a fee. 

RIA FAN shared photographs of the rental home which allowed Novaya Gazeta journalists to locate what they believe to be the same cabin in the village of Podrezovo near Mytishchi. 

The cabin cited by RIA FAN as the one used to house opposition demonstrators / RIA FAN

What’s more, Mangushev confirmed that “the house the opposition paid for” was part of a plan he staged – and there are receipts to prove it. Apparently, Mangushev received 220 thousand roubles (over $3,500) for a project called “Cabin.”

A handwritten receipt, signed by Mangushev detailing the sum of 220,000 roubles (approx. $3,600) for the 'Cabin' project

Participants in the “Cabin” project appear to have received 150 thousand roubles (about $2,430) each. According to the signature on another hand-written receipt, someone by the name of Aleksandr Bosykh recruited ten people for the project on August 30, 2019. The receipt includes their names and signatures confirming that they had received payment.

A receipt bearing the name of Aleksandr Bosykh. Bosykh denied having written such a receipt to Novaya

Mangushev claimed that this Bosykh is the same individual who attempted to run in the Moscow City Duma elections, but was not registered as a candidate. 

When Novaya Gazeta reached out to Bosykh for comment, he confirmed that he is acquainted with Manghusev and that he helped him recruit people for a particular project at the end of the summer, which seemed to be connected to a cabin. However, Bosykh denied writing any receipts and claimed that the handwriting in the leaked documents is not his own.

Paid Attacks and Infiltration 

The leaked documents also included receipts for attacks on election campaigners that the authorities had previously dismissed as the work of “ordinary hooligans.” 

A receipt showing a 130,000 rouble payment (approx. $2,100) for the 'Govnomyet' operation

For example, one receipt showed a 130 thousand rouble (about $2,100) payment for an operation in which real campaigners collecting signatures in support of Lubov Sobol were doused with excrement on the street.

Following the attack, Novaya Gazeta requested that Moscow City Police investigate the incident, find the attackers and initiate criminal proceedings. In response, the authorities claimed that “ordinary hooligans” attacked the signature collectors from the Sobol campaign. 

A letter from the Russian Interior Ministry to Novaya, claiming that their investigation revealed that the attackers were 'ordinary hooligans'

The documents also revealed a project called the “Sobol Hunt,” which involved plans to infiltrate the candidate’s headquarters and sabotage her campaign through a “proposed set of activities.” These included pressure and attacks “on key members of the headquarters and their families” and the “demoralization of volunteers through regular physical attacks on them and radical physical obstructions to their work.” 

The “Sobol Hunt” file (dated June 7, 2019) also outlined plans for external surveillance, having law enforcement detain volunteers and organizing the “transfer of funds from foreign citizens to the election account” to create a violation of the law. 

A screenshot from the "Sobol Hunt" file, detailing in Russian various anti-opposition activities, including establishing surveillance and detaining volunteers

The first physical attacks on Sobol campaigners took place on June 15, 2019. Multiple activists had their signature sheets destroyed (one was doused in coca-cola) and the attacks were repeated the next day. In both instances, the attackers tried to take the signature sheets and throw them away. Three more attacks on signature collection points took place on June 18, 2019. 

The Sobol headquarters also experienced incidents involving fake signature collectors, which they reported to the police.

(Tweet reads: Hello, I'm in contact with Lubov Sobol's headquarters, and we caught two packs of fake signature collectors. One of them is already writing a complaint about his employer to the police. On video is their employer/brigader, one Ilya Ostrovsky. His boss is Valeriy Yurievich Porubov.) 

Following the publication of Novaya Gazeta’s report on the anti-Sobol campaign, Lubov Sobol filed a report demanding an investigation into the provocations against her during the Moscow City Duma elections campaign.

“I filed a report to the [Investigative Committee] against Prigozhin and the ‘fighter for the independence of Donbas’ Mangushev to institute criminal proceedings…[for] ‘obstruction of the exercise of electoral rights’,” Sobol wrote on Twitter. “I will pursue accountability.” 

/Translated and abridged by Eilish Hart, with materials from Denis Korotkov of Novaya Gazeta. Courtesy of the Russian Language News Exchange.