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Published in Stream:
Russia Update: June 21, 2016
Press by
The Interpreter
@Interpreter_Mag
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Interpreter_Mag
Fontanka Finds Links Between Prigozhin's 'Kremlin Troll Factory,' Wagner Military Contractors, and Attacks on Journalists and Activists
6 years
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Fontanka.ru, the independent St. Petersburg news site, has published an unsigned article today, June 21, titled "Hell's Kitchen" about the "Kremlin trolls' factory" harassment of journalists. The article has been summarized in Russian by Novaya Gazeta and briefly in English by Meduza.

The article sheds light on the shadowy world of the privatization of functions that the old Soviet secret police used to perform by companies run by former policemen. 

Fontanka says that Yevgeny Prigozhin, an ex-con and caterer who founded the firm Concord and became President Vladimir Putin's "favorite chef," and who also reportedly founded a company to hire "Internet trolls" to harass critics of the Russian regime, was targeting Fontanka correspondent Denis Korotkov and other reporters. 

Korotkov is the same journalist who has written about the private military contractor Wagner which sent mercenaries to Syria, and earlier this month he published a piece titled "Private Army Kitchen" describing how he discovered ties between Wagner and Prigozhin, who has a virtual monopoly on military contracts to provide food, cleaning, construction and energy to army bases.

Korotkov found that Prigozhin was linked to Dmitry Utkin -- known by his nom de guerre "Wagner" -- the commander of the private military company by the same name -- as well as other security officers of Wagner. 

The connection between Wagner and Prigozhin's security people came to light when the FSB detained Prigozhin's motorcade for illegal use of special signals and license plates. A video of the incident showed Yevgeny Gulyayev, head of Prigozhin's security. Fontanka has information linking Gulyayev's former fellow servicemen -- now employees of Prigozhin's firm Concord -- to Wagner and fighters in Ukraine and Syria.

Gulyaev began his career in the Leningrad police in the late 1980s, then served in the anti-organized crime department in St. Petersburg, as the city was re-named, then was promoted to serve as chief of police for the whole Northwest Federal District. He had attained the rank of colonel in the police.

Sources told Fontanka that Gulyayev ran a network of former police who frequently traveled to Rostov -- the staging area for the war in Ukraine -- and then later Krasnodar. Among people seen to travel with these retired colleagues of Gulyayev's travel was Dmitry Utkin, commander of Wagner, 54, an Afghan war vet and also a retired policeman who distinguished himself in fighting in the North Caucasus. He retired from the police in 2014 and went to work for Prigozhin. 

Sources told Fontanka that Prigozhin's travel routes often coincided with Utkin's and they had sat next to each other on plane trips; Gulyayev was also seen traveling with Utkin. Gulyayev refused to comment to Fontanka.

Now it appears that in addition to performing the Kremlin's dirty work in wars in Ukraine and Syria, the private contractors are also methodically harassing critics of the government who have also exposed their role. 

Within three hours of the appearance of Korotkov's story, queries appeared on social media asking Fontanka journalists for Korotkov's personal data. One message on VKontakte signed with the name "Kriv Vetka" and using a picture of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the first Soviet secret police chief, as an avatar, asked for Korotkov's birthday, saying that they wanted to surprise him. The publication could also account for recent DDoS attacks on Fontanka.ru, say the editors.  

"Kriv Vetka" wrote from an IP address that was registered with the company Glavset', a new legal entity created by the managers of the infamous "troll factory" at no. 55 Savushkina Street, along with Internet Research, Prigozhin's firm employing hundreds of Russians to write comments on Internet forums and news sites.

Glavset is headed by Mikhail Bystrov, the former head of the Moscow District Directorate of the Interior Ministry, or police. Bystrov had also headed Internet Research for a time.

Fontanka's editors pursued their investigation into the attacks because they were concerned about a growing tide of online and offline harassment of reporters, bloggers and activists in St. Petersburg who are critical of authorities.

Also under attack are journalists from the Agency for Journalist Investigation, Andrei Konstantinov, Yevgeny Vyshenkov and Aleksandr Gorshkov. Fontanka discovered that the reporters were being tailed, including with a radar device placed under Vyshenkov's car. Novaya Gazeta also did their own investigation of the surveillance of journalists by private companies with government contracts. Both concluded that the surveillance was not done by the FSB, but by private companies with ties to the government.

The journalists and activists found their private data posted on a site called Whoiswhos.me which was later blocked by the Russian government's censor. Novaya Gazeta also found that Prigozhin had financed NTV's takedown of the opposition, "Anatomy of Protest," and was behind several fake sites purporting to be based in Ukraine which were actually Russian propaganda sites.

Daniil Aleksandrov, an activst in the movement "Monitoring St. Petersburg," was beaten near his home. Not long before this incident, unknown persons had put up a fake account in VKontakte with his name, using a picture taken of him clandestinely while he was walking his dog. The account published statements derogatory of Russia.

Two other activists, whose first names only were given as "Ruslan" and "Yuliya," were said to have fake accounts with pictures of their spouses, posted in this manner to defame them, and their cars were set on fire.

Another activist, Yegor Alekseyev, the administrator of a social media group called Prestupnaya Vlast' [Criminal Government], was also beaten by unknown assailants and suffered a broken nose and concussion; the attackers warmed him about "excessive opposition activity."

A total of 7 persons have been beaten in St. Petersburg for reasons related to their writing or activism, says Fontanka. Some of their names were in the Whoiswhos.me portal, but now that the site is closed, it is not possible to determine if all of them were. The portal was created in late November 2015. While the real site owner is concealed, Fontanka found that it belonged to Whois Privacy Corp and the hosting was provided by the Kharkov company ITL, which also managed the site frolnews.ru, an anti-Ukrainian Russian language news site that ran a fake montage of President Petro Poroshenko in a military uniform with a swastika.

Fontanka also cites the work of British journalist Lawrence Alexander on the "troll factory" who discovered that the "troll factory" Ukraine sites all had the same Google Analytics ID. He also noted that the contact name -- Nikita Podgorny -- for registration was the same.

From here, the connections are a bit more tenuous but seem damning. Among the sites found by Alexander related to the "troll factory" was the Kharkov News Agency (NAKh) and Whoiswho.com.ua. The latter site was blocked by Ukrainian authorities and moved to zonu.org although it retained the same contact address. Says Fontanka (translation by The Interpreter):

Whoiswho.org in content and manner of presentation of materials is similar to frolnews.ru, and its name, as can be judged, is reminiscent of the address Whoiswhos.me, where the personal data of people beaten in St. Petersburg was published.

Korotkov has written frequently on the network of Prigozhin's business interests since 2014, a multi-million empire with contracts from the Defense Ministry which included housing for the military and service of military barracks run by former policemen.

The climate for Prigozhin's successful contracts was set by former Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyuk who created Oboronservis, a commercial organization to perform services for the military. After Serdyuk's arrest, Sergei Shoigu, the new defense minister, joined various separately-created companies into one called GU ZhKKh [Main Directorate for Housing and Communal Services] which handled 40 billion rubles ($625 billion) in contracts -- where once again Prigozhin was found.

Fontanka has asked police to investigate the attacks on their reporters and web site, and believe that if the police were honest enough to probe the queries for the private data of some of the people attacked -- which likely came from police databases -- they will find the culprit. Needless to say, this isn't likely to happen.

Catherine A. Fitzpatrick