How Russian propaganda seeks to destroy Prigozhin’s ‘Man of the People’ reputation

Russian state media on Wednesday released images presented as images of the search of the home of Yevgeny Prigojine, the sultry head of the Russian paramilitary group Wagner. A real warning to those who want to challenge Vladimir Putin’s power.

Kremlin propaganda finally turned on Yevgeny Prigojine with the desire to damage the image and humiliate this long-time traveling companion of President Vladimir Putin.

The Russian public television channel, Rossiya 1, broadcast a special edition on Wednesday evening, July 5, about the leader of the Russian paramilitary group Wagner, showing images presented as images of the search of his home and his office in Saint Petersburg. This police operation was allegedly carried out at the end of June, the night after the attempted armed uprising led by Prigozhin.

These images provide a rare insight into a lavish lifestyle, revealing several photographs of a large, luxurious home with a helicopter parked in a very large garden. Inside, in addition to the grand piano, the indoor swimming pool, the jacuzzi and the sauna, we discover an accumulation of memorabilia collected during a decade running a private militia: an arsenal of automatic weapons, boxes, gold bars, a pile of fake passports with different names and, in a closet, shelves lined with unconvincing wigs.

Other more macabre objects were also found in Prigojine’s house: a gigantic mass placed on the ground, on which one reads “to be used in case of important negotiations”. A sign of dark humor: the mace is one of the symbols of the Wagner group and Prigozhin’s weapon of choice against those he accused of being traitors or his enemies. A framed photograph of severed heads dumped on a road was also found, according to media reports that blurred the image.

In this special dedicated to presenting these photos, journalist Eduard Petrov reported that the police allegedly found cash worth 600 million rubles (about 6 million euros) in Prigozhin’s properties. The proof, according to him, of the hypocrisy of the person in question, who has constantly denounced the corruption within the Russian military command.

“For me, Yevgeny Prigojine owes his image as a people’s hero only to the media fed by Yevgeny Prigojine himself,” the journalist said, referring to the media funded by the former head of Wagner. “After it failed, they quickly closed and ran away,” added Eduard Petrov.

“Prigogine’s reputation must be tarnished”

In fact, the media machine that helped create the Prigojine myth went up after Wagner’s aborted mutiny. The Patriot Media Group, a Russian media outlet whose board is headed by Yevgeny Prigozhin himself, and whose flagship news agency RIA FAN has faithfully praised the Wagner boss and his group throughout the war in Ukraine, closed its doors without explanation the week after the failed mutiny .

A week later, Russian media reported that the federal communications and media oversight service, Roskomnadzor, had blocked the RIA FAN page, as well as those of Politics Today, Economy Today, Neva News and People’s News, a set of online media that regularly published pro. -Prigogine content. The Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Russian online propaganda organization created by Yevgeny Prigojine that was used to publish pro-Kremlin content on social networks, is also said to have shut down.

The media machine set in motion by Yevgeny Prigojine does not seem to have been able to avoid the disgrace of the mercenary, according to Margarita Zavadskaya, senior researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA). “Prigozhin’s notion of an all-powerful media empire is more an image he sought to project than a reflection of his actual effectiveness,” she notes. “During the mutiny, RIA FAN and other news media remained completely silent without support for Prigozhin and his rebellion.”

For Stephen Hutchings, professor of Russian studies at the University of Manchester, UK, Wednesday night’s Prigozhin special is part of a much wider propaganda campaign against the disgraced mercenary. “At the moment there is a coordinated media campaign against Yevgeny Prigozhin, with ‘revelations’ about the enormous wealth in Prigozhin’s mansions, aimed at undermining his image as a man of the people.” A presentation very different from the one that a few months ago depicts a providential man who conquered Bakhmout in Ukraine with his men.

“Prigogine’s reputation must be tarnished”, analyzes Stephen Hutchings. “He abused his power and his autonomy and committed what Putin considers treason, the worst crime in his eyes,” the Russia specialist continues.

A warning to Russian elites

“The show was probably an attempt to break an early personality cult of Prigojine,” said Jeff Hawn, an expert on Russian security issues and an outside consultant for the New Lines Institute, a US geopolitical think tank. “During the mutiny, Prigozhin’s general message was against corruption. Here, the Russian state will show that it drops the masks and deflates the myth.” The message to the general Russian public is the following: “He is not your man, he is as corrupt as the others”, explains the specialist.

Not sure that the propaganda strategy against Yevgeny Prigojine is working, because the man has acquired a special status with the Russian people. By comparing his presence and the presence of his men in the front line of the fighting in eastern Ukraine with the presence of the generals well protected in bunkers, Prigojine knew how to use the media and social networks to his advantage. “He was largely inspired by populist rhetoric, presenting himself as an outspoken, eloquent man of the people.” describes Professor Stephen Hutchings.

“He’s very working class, very raw and direct,” says Jeff Hawn. “It’s a bit like your alcoholic uncle: You wouldn’t want him to have his finger on the nuclear trigger, but he tells it like it is.”

A tactic that paid off. A poll by the independent Yuri Levada Analytical Center, published in the days after the Prigozhin mutiny, showed that although the former Wagner chief’s popularity rating had fallen by half, almost a third of those polled still partially or fully supported him.

In Russia, state television is closely watched by the Russian political and economic elite, who hope to find a sign of the Kremlin’s political bottom line there. According to Professor Stephen Hutchings, the primetime broadcast of the searches of Prigojine’s home on public television is also a message directed at the Russian oligarchs, whose power Vladimir Putin fears.

For the professor of Russian studies, “the message is also intended to make them realize that they should think twice before taking action against Putin, lest they also become victims of the same attacks on their security and their reputation”.

“The mainstream Western narrative that the failed coup severely weakened Putin is only one side of the story,” comments Professor Stephen Hutchings. “Putin used the Wagner mutiny to his advantage by making it a unifying factor in the country, by raising the specter of a bloody civil war, and he used it to show that coups are doomed to failure in Russia.”

According to Russian security expert Jeff Hawn, the images of boxes of wads of $100 bills being loaded into police vans are a thinly veiled threat to potential opponents of Vladimir Putin. “What are they afraid of? That the wrath of the state will turn against them,” says the specialist. “It’s about showing that you can’t take on the state because it will turn against you and you will lose the only thing you care about: your money.”

Dismantling the Prigozhin Empire

It is besides Evguéni Prigojine’s money that the Russian power first attacked to damage what is now public enemy number 1, and in particular the lucrative public contracts on which the businessman had built his empire. “Prigozhin’s business is heavily dependent on state ‘investment’ and public contracts and is unlikely to be able to survive on its own,” said Margarita Zavadskaya of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. “Prigozhin risks being stripped of most of his financial assets and perhaps his access to weapons,” she adds.

The catering company Concord, which had given Prigojine the nickname “Putin’s chef”, was also in the Kremlin’s crosshairs. President Vladimir Putin himself announced that the company, which he said had earned 80 billion rubles (about 798 million euros) from Russian state contracts to feed the army, would be the subject of a financial investigation.

With the former head of Wagner gone, much of his business empire will be dismantled and likely redistributed to those closer to power, says Russia expert Stephen Hutchings. “The claims of the total destruction of the Prigozhin media empire made in state media should not be taken at face value. The most prominent of these, like the IRA troll factory, are likely to be recovered by actors close to the Kremlin, such as the FSB (Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation, editor’s note) or GRU (General Directorate of Military Intelligence, editor’s note).

As his empire crumbles around him, Yevgeny Prigojine should be able to console himself that much of his personal fortune should be returned to him, thanks in particular to his closed-door negotiations with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko following his aborted rebellion.

The independent daily Moscow Times also reported this week that Russian authorities had returned to Yevgeny Prigojine, in exile, 10 billion rubles (about 101 million euros) seized during police raids. But there is still uncertainty surrounding the former militia boss, who would now be in Russia, according to Alexander Lukashenko, despite the deal, which allowed him to go into exile in Belarus.

“He will lose his homes and properties in Russia and will only be able to keep a portion of his personal wealth,” said Russian security expert Jeff Hawn. “But he will lose his influence on the media, and he will especially lose the Wagner force. The militia will be dismantled and redistributed. So Yevgeni Prigozhin will keep his personal assets… but he is out of the game.”

This article has been translated from the original English version by Louise Brosolo.

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