New Delhi: Weeks after imposing sanctions on several Russian elites linked to Vladimir Putin, in response to its invasion of Ukraine, the United States’ Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Friday reiterated oligarch Yevgeniy Viktorovich Prigozhin as a wanted figure for alleged election interference.
“He allegedly conspired to defraud the US by interfering with the functions of the Federal Election Commission, Justice Department, and State Department. Visit http://tips.fbi.gov to submit a tip,” the FBI had tweeted.
Help #FBIWFO find Yevgeniy Viktorovich Prigozhin. He allegedly conspired to defraud the U.S. by interfering with the functions of the Federal Election Commission, Justice Department, and State Department. Visit https://t.co/t8G7LO4hxu to submit a tip. https://t.co/2FOGe2TRMH pic.twitter.com/jEcy76INcJ
— FBI Washington Field (@FBIWFO) March 25, 2022
According to the Daily Sabah, the investigation agency had first added Prigozhin to its ‘Most Wanted List’ in February 2021, citing his funding of the Internet Research Agency (a Russian troll farm) and a prior federal arrest warrant issued in February 2018.
“He allegedly oversaw and approved their political and electoral interference operations in the United States which included the purchase of American computer server space, the creation of hundreds of fictitious online personas, and the use of stolen identities of persons from the United States. These actions were allegedly taken to reach significant numbers of Americans for the purposes of interfering with the United States political system, including the 2016 Presidential Election,” the FBI said.
Prigozhin is one name among many in a broader series of allegations made by the US for interference in the 2016 presidential election that resulted in Donald Trump’s victory. But the nature of Prigozhin’s apparent involvement and links with Putin are particularly significant.
From hot dog vendor to ‘Putin’s chef’
Born in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) in 1961, Prigozhin spent his youth in and out of jail for robbery, prostituting minors and other organised crime.
But after his release in 1990, Prigozhin made his first foray into the post-Soviet Saint Petersburg’s nascent commercial food production industry.
According to Latvia-based news organisation Meduza, Prigozhin was a hot dog vendor before he became a manager of the city’s “first chain” of grocery shops. By the late 1990s, Prigozhin had shifted from groceries to the restaurant industry. He launched a catering company with a business partner and two establishments that served Russia’s elite.
The second establishment, which reportedly cost upwards of $400,000 to remodel a disused ship permanently docked on the Vyatka river, was especially a success, and also secured Prigozhin his big political break.
In 2000, the waterfront restaurant hosted Putin (who had just been elected as the Russian president for the first time) and then-Japan Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, with Prigozhin “personally serving” them.
Within the next three years, Prigozhin’s restaurant also reportedly hosted the heads of state of France and the US, and was responsible for catering numerous Kremlin events, including Putin’s birthday party. As a result, the term “Putin’s chef” was coined for Prigozhin.
Corruption, funding mercenaries and run-in with Navalny’s NGO
Buoyed by the revenue generated and powerful friends made from the restaurant business, Prigozhin spent the rest of the 2000s and 2010s making lucrative catering deals and diversifying into other ventures.
But allegations of corruption soon followed, particularly from activist Alexei Navalny’s NGO known as FBK that accused him of illegally amassing nearly a billion rubles in personal wealth.
Prigozhin responded to these allegations with a lawsuit seeking 88 million rubles in damages. By July 2020, following numerous court orders to pay Prigozhin and others who had sued FBK, Navalny announced the dissolution of FBK.
Aside from corruption and election interference, Prigozhin is alleged to have funded the Wagner Group, a nebulous network of mercenary groups reported to be involved in various conflicts around the world, such as Syria, the Central African Republic and Ukraine.
Prigozhin has since hit back at these allegations by filing a libel case against the founder of media company Bellingcat, which has been claiming to “uncover” Wagner activities since 2018.