Bangui, Central African Republic
On his last trip to Central African Republic (CAR) Last month, previous Wagner president Yevgeny Prigozhin He visited La Maison Rousse, or Russian House, a cultural center near the Russian Embassy in the capital, where he took selfies with aides and local residents.
The institute and its various activities are striking examples of how the mercenary group has become an alternative to the Russian state in the country, and a symbol of the challenges that await the president. Russian President Vladimir Putin While trying to withdraw control.
The Russian flag flies outside the Russian House, or Russian House, a cultural center in Bangui.
Since Prigozhin Coup attempt In June and the subsequent death in A Plane crash And outside Moscow, just two months later, Russia is engaged in a high-stakes scramble to centralize its empire on the African continent, involving thousands of fighters, a vast array of commercial holdings and multiple soft power initiatives like this.
While the Kremlin tries to put its arms around Wagner’s sprawling business network, the group’s next move remains unclear. But signs of what the future might hold for the Central African Republic, one of the organization’s first client states and its laboratory on the continent, are beginning to emerge in Bangui. Here, Russia appears to be working to strengthen Wagner’s operations while continuing to exercise its influence. It seems that the message that Moscow wants to convey is: that things are business as usual.
Russia’s dominance is evident everywhere. In roadside bars, locals sip Africa Ti L’Or beer and Wa-Na-Wa vodka made by a company linked to Wagner. Meanwhile, fighter planes donated by Russia sound their whistles during sorties.
At the cultural center, the Russian tricolor flag flies overhead. Outside, a circular courtyard is topped with an onion dome.
“The Maison Russe is the nerve center for all of Wagner’s activities in the Central African Republic,” Natalia Dukhan, chief investigator for The Sentry, a US non-profit organization that monitors Wagner across the country, told CNN.
According to The Sentry, the center is home to a variety of operations linked to Wagner’s business endeavors – the group uses it to sell gold and diamonds and entertain VIPs. Dukhan said it runs events aimed at “spreading Russian culture while promoting a pro-Moscow perception of international relations.”
Mercenaries from the Wagner Group have been operating in the Central African Republic since at least 2018, protecting President Faustin Archange Touadera and training army recruits. Wagner’s forces rose Rebel killer The country’s civil war, which has lasted for more than a decade, has expanded Russia’s influence in the mineral-rich country. Wagner has secured a series of generous mining concessions in the country to explore for diamonds and gold, and is also heavily involved in the timber industry.
Masked Wagner mercenaries in front of a grocery store in the capital.
All Eyes on Wagner, an open source initiative tracking the group, said the Russian House was established as a business in Bangui, but had no links to Rossotrudnichestvo, the Russian government agency that coordinates cultural institutes around the world.
“The Maison Russe… is a shining example of how the Wagner Collection was an alternative to the Russian state,” All Eyes on Wagner told CNN. She added that this serves the interests of Wagner and Russia: “Promoting Wagner beer through exclusive events, showing Wagner films, hosting Prigozhin, and inviting Russian Defense Ministry delegations to give lectures on military cooperation between Russia and the Central African Republic.”
The center is long headed by Dmitry Seti, Prigozhin’s former deputy who played a “leading role” in the Central African Republic for Wagner, according to the European Council.
But City, who was sanctioned by the European Union and the United States “over serious human rights violations,” survived Assassination attempt In December 2022, he may have been replaced.
Local media recently reported that a new director took over the duties of the Russian House, referring to her as Nafisa. Filmed in Photos of Prigozhin On his last visit to the Central African Republic, but there is no evidence of its connection to Wagner before April.
Access to the Russian House is extremely restricted. No Western journalists were allowed inside, and CNN’s requests to film at the center were repeatedly refused by the supposed new director. When a CNN team visited the site using a hidden camera, she introduced herself as Nafisa Kiryanova.
All eyes on Wagner/Twitter
Anfisa Alexandrovna Kiryanova (right) appears in the background of a photo of Prigozhin outside the Russian House last month.
Relying on social media accounts and other linked profiles, CNN discovered that she also had another name: Anfisa Alexandrovna Kiryanova. A YouTube channel linked to Kiryanova revealed that she had been sharing video reviews of cosmetics for nine months. In her resume shared online, she claims to have worked as a translator and attended the Sorbonne University in Paris and Moscow State Linguistic University.
Dressed in local clothing and silver high-heeled shoes, she gave CNN a short tour of the institute. In three tents outside the center, Russian language classes were held, while Russian films were shown in the cinema room.
A masked man, who appeared to be a Wagner mercenary, walked in front of the tents and into a parking lot behind them. Kiryanova did not confirm his identity or show CNN the restricted area he was heading to.
When CNN asked Kiryanova about her appearance in the background of photos of Prigozhin at the centre, she was evasive, asking: “Oh my God, can you show me that?” After I showed her the photos, she reluctantly admitted: “Well, yeah, that’s good.”
Speaking about Prigozhin’s visit and Wagner’s future in the Central African Republic, Kiryanova said his death means nothing for Russia’s mission in the country.
“Would anything change if the president of your country died, I don’t know? Does that mean that your country no longer exists?… The mission continues, and the Russian cultural mission continues.”
In response to a question about who supervises the center now, Kiryanova said that Saiti “is responsible for the head of the entire mission and manages some other directions.”
President Touadera’s City and Wagner security adviser, Vitaly Perfilev, who has also been sanctioned by the United States and the European Union, remains among Wagner’s old guard still on the ground in the Central African Republic as of late last week. A diplomatic official who spoke to CNN on condition of anonymity said the two men returned to Moscow and returned, suggesting they had signed new contracts with the Russian Defense Ministry.
Both have retreated into the shadows in recent months and declined CNN’s repeated requests for interviews.
The diplomatic official said Wagner left a lasting mark on the Central African Republic with only about 1,000 mercenaries on the ground. The official said that Russia is now embarking on a coordinated reorganization, in an attempt to reduce Wagner’s operating costs in the Central African Republic. This effort is two-pronged: forcing fighters to sign new contracts and withdrawing them to concentrate control in key population centers.
In July and August, Ilyushin IL-76 transport planes rotated weekly to bring fighters back to Moscow to sign contracts, the official said, adding that an estimated 150 planes did not return.
There are clear signs of refocusing forces across the capital.
Wagner’s mercenaries drive around Bangui in unmarked pickup trucks painted green or sand. They take to the streets and shop for groceries, wearing masks to pick up cakes, bananas and Coca-Cola bottles. The Wagner Protocol stipulates that they should always cover their faces, even in situations like searching for shoes at a flea market.
Despite the failed Wagner rebellion and the killing of Prigozhin thousands of miles to the north, little has changed for the Central African Republic’s relationship with Russia, according to Fidel Gwandjika, a senior adviser to President Touadera.
CNN caught up with Gwandjika at his mansion in the capital. He was tall and grey, and wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the message “Je suis Wagner” — “I am Wagner” in French — claiming it had been given to him by Prigogine himself. He said of the late mercenary leader: “He was my friend, and he was my best friend in front of all the people of Central Africa.”
Fidel Gwandjika, a senior advisor to President Touadera, outside his palace in Bangui.
“The Russians gave us peace,” he said, adding: “We are very happy that Mr. Yevgeny Prigozhin was able in a short time, one year, to expel the rebels, and our army occupied our country 100%.”
Gwandjika claimed that Putin spoke to Touadera recently and reassured him, saying: “Everything will be like yesterday.” It will be better tomorrow and the day after. So we have no regrets.”
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