Bangui, Central African Republic
On his last trip to Central African Republic (CAR) last month, the first wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin He visited the Maison Russe, or Russian House, a cultural center near the Russian embassy in the capital, where he posed for selfies with his lieutenants and locals.
The institute and its various activities are clear examples of how the mercenary group has become a substitute for the Russian state in the country and a symbol of the challenges that await the president. Vladimir Putin while trying to regain control.
The Russian flag flying in front of the Maison Russe, or the Russian House, a cultural center in Bangui.
From Prigozhin coup attempt in June and subsequent death in a plane crash Outside Moscow, just two months later, Russia has been engaged in a high-stakes fight to centralize its empire on the African continent, which includes thousands of fighters, a wide range of companies and multiple soft power initiatives like this one.
As the Kremlin attempts to control Wagner’s extensive business network, what’s next for the group remains unclear. But signs are beginning to emerge in Bangui of what the future holds for the Central African Republic, one of the organization’s first client states and its laboratory on the continent. Here Russia appears to be consolidating Wagner operations while continuing to exert its influence. The message that Moscow wants to project seems to be: everything remains the same.
Russia’s dominance is visible everywhere. In roadside bars, locals drink Africa Ti L’Or beer and Wa-Na-Wa vodka made by a company linked to Wagner. Meanwhile, fighter jets donated by Russia whistle their sorties overhead.
A Russian tricolor flag flies in the cultural center. Outside, a carousel topped with an onion-shaped dome rotates in the courtyard.
“The Maison Russe is the nerve center of all Wagner activities in the Central African Republic,” Nathalia Dukhan, senior researcher at The Sentry, a US nonprofit that has monitored Wagner across the country, told CNN.
According to The Sentry, the center houses a wide range of operations linked to Wagner’s businesses: the group uses it to sell its gold and diamonds and entertain VIPs. It organizes events designed to “spread Russian culture while promoting a pro-Moscow perception of international relations,” Dukhan said.
Mercenaries from the Wagner group have operated in the Central African Republic since at least 2018, protecting President Faustin-Archange Touadera and training army recruits. Wagner’s troops have fought against the rebels in the country’s civil conflict, which has lasted more than a decade, while expanding Russia’s reach in the mineral-rich nation. Wagner has secured a number of generous mining concessions in the country to prospect for diamonds and gold, and is heavily involved in the timber industry.
Masked Wagner mercenaries outside a grocery store in the capital.
All Eyes on Wagner, an open source initiative that follows the group, said the Russian House is incorporated as a company in Bangui but has no ties to the Rossotrudnichestvo agency, which is the Russian state agency that coordinates cultural institutes across the country. world.
“Maison Russe… is an excellent example of how the Wagner group has been a surrogate for the Russian state,” All Eyes on Wagner told CNN. He added that it serves both Wagner and Russia’s interests: “Promote Wagner beers through exclusive events, screen Wagner films, host Prigozhin and invite delegations from the Russian Defense Ministry to give lectures on military cooperation between Russia and the Central African Republic”.
The center has long been led by Dmitry Syty, a former Prigozhin deputy who has played “a leading role” in the Central African Republic for Wagner, according to the European Council.
But Syty, which is sanctioned by the European Union and the United States “for serious human rights abuses,” survived. an attempted murder in December 2022, it may have been replaced.
Local media recently reported that a new director had taken over at the Russian House, referring to her as Nafisa. She was photographed in the photographs by prigozhin on her last visit to the Central African Republic, but there is no evidence that she had any affiliation with Wagner before April.
Access to the Russian House is extremely restricted. No Western journalists have been allowed access and CNN’s requests to film at the center were repeatedly rejected by the supposedly new director. When a CNN crew 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 photograph of Prigozhin outside the Russian House last month.
Based on social media accounts and other linked profiles, CNN discovered that she also has another name: Anfisa Alexandrovna Kiryanova. A YouTube channel linked to Kiryanova reveals that just nine months ago she was sharing video reviews of cosmetics. In a resume shared online, she claims to have worked as a translator and attended the Sorbonne in Paris and Moscow State Linguistic University.
Dressed in local clothing and silver heels, she gave CNN a brief tour of the institute. Russian classes were held in three tents outside the center and Russian films were shown in a cinema hall.
A masked man, who appeared to be a Wagner mercenary, walked past the shops to a parking lot behind them. Kiryanova did not confirm who he was or show CNN the restricted area she was heading to.
When CNN pressed Kiryanova about her appearance in the background of photographs taken of Prigozhin at the center, she was evasive, asking, “Oh my God, can you show me that?” After she was shown the photographs, she reluctantly admitted, “Okay, yeah, that’s good.”
Speaking about Prigozhin’s visit and Wagner’s future in the Central African Republic, Kiryanova stated that his death means nothing for Russia’s mission in the country.
“Does anything change if, I don’t know, the president of your country dies? Does this mean that his country ceases to exist? … The mission continues to exist, the Russian cultural mission continues to exist,” he said.
When asked who supervised the center now, Kiryanova said Syty was “responsible for the head of the entire mission and heads some other directorates.”
Syty and Wagner’s security adviser to President Touadera, Vitali Perfilev, who is also sanctioned by the United States and the European Union, are among Wagner’s old guard who were still on the ground in the Central African Republic at the end of the last week. A diplomatic official who spoke to CNN on condition of anonymity said the two men had 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 in the Central African Republic with only about 1,000 mercenaries on the ground. Now, Russia is embarking on a concerted reorganization, with an attempt to reduce Wagner’s operating costs in the Central African Republic, the official said. That effort has two fronts: forcing combatants to sign new contracts and withdrawing them to concentrate control in the main population centers.
In July and August, Ilyushin IL-76 transport planes rotated weekly to fly fighters back to Moscow to sign contracts, the official said, adding that an estimated 150 have not returned.
There are obvious signs of a reconcentration of troops throughout the capital.
Wagner’s mercenaries circulate around Bangui in camouflage trucks painted green or sand. They are on the streets and shopping in grocery stores, wearing balaclavas to pick up cookies, bananas and Coca-Cola bottles. Wagner protocol dictates that they should always cover their faces, even in situations like searching for shoes at a flea market.
Despite the failed Wagner mutiny and the subsequent death of Prigozhin thousands of kilometers to the north, little has changed in the Central African Republic’s relationship with Russia, according to Fidèle Gouandjika, a senior advisor to President Touadera.
CNN met with Gouandjika at his mansion in the capital. Tall and gray-haired, he wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the message “Je suis Wagner” (“I am Wagner,” in French), claiming it was given to him by Prigozhin himself. “He was my friend, he was my best friend in front of all the Central African people,” he said of the late mercenary chief.
Fidèle Gouandjika, senior advisor to President Touadera, in front of his mansion in Bangui.
“The Russians gave us peace,” he said, adding: “we are very happy that Mr. Yevgeny Prigozhin in a short time, one year, has expelled the rebels and our country is 100% occupied by our army.”
Gouandjika claimed that Putin recently spoke to Touadera and assured him that: “’Everything will be like yesterday. It will be better tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. So we have no regrets.’”