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Companies linked to Russian catering tycoon Yevgeny Prigozhin have won thousands of government contracts worth billions of dollars. (file photo)

Companies that can be tied to oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin have won at least 5,393 Russian-government contracts since 2011 worth more than 209 billion rubles ($3.2 billion), according to an investigation by Current Time and the Municipal Scanner anticorruption website.

Most of the contracts were concluded to provide food and other services to military units, but Prigozhin's companies also cater for schools and health-care facilities.

The actual number of contracts could be much larger, in part because Prigozhin has created an opaque ownership network that makes it difficult to track all his activities and in part because, in 2017, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev issued a government decision that allowed the Voentorg military-supply agency and its subsidiaries to conceal information about its tenders on national-security grounds.

There is evidence, in the form of court and other records, that some of Prigozhin's companies have been providing services to military units although they do not have a publicly recorded tender. Several companies tied to Prigozhin, including MTTs, Pishchevik, Obshchepit, Merkurii, and ASP, are listed on the Voentorg website as "partner" organizations.

More complete information about the complex connections of these companies to Prigozhin's business empire can be found in the report by Current Time, which is a Russian-language media project led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.

Known Associates

Many of the companies are owned or managed by known associates of Prigozhin, while others share a legal address or contact information with companies within Prigozhin's empire. Several of them have used the same lawyer, Irina Medved, to represent them in disputes with the Defense Ministry or other government agencies.

In 2017, the Defense Ministry sued Voentorg for allegedly violating a contract. The firms Pishchevik, Kollektiv-Servis, Obshchepit, MTTs, and Merkurii were involved in the case as third parties and all of them were represented, according to court documents, by a lawyer identified as K.V. Shkodkina.

St. Petersburg Financial University Professor Sergei Chyornykh told Current Time that such ties could be a coincidence, but could also indicate affiliations among companies that should attract the attention of financial-monitoring agencies.

'Toxic Nature'

Current Time asked two financial specialists to examine the complex web of interconnections among the Prigozhin firms. Neither of them agreed to speak on the record, with one saying: "Given the toxic nature of the gentleman we are discussing, I agree to be identified only as a business source."

"It is a classic system," one of the experts said. "Two or three structures compete in one tender. You own them all. You win the contract with minimal effort.... Although sometimes you can see companies competing that have one address, one director, one e-mail address. This is an old system -- it has been used 1,000 times and will be used 1,000 more."

Currrent Time sent a list of questions to Prigozhin's main company, Konkord Management, with a request for comment on its investigation. The company responded by saying it had no obligation to answer Current Time and that the questions were "not publicly significant."

The company's statement also quoted Prigozhin as saying that Current Time journalist Timur Olevsky was "a petty, dirty bastard...and we aren't going to answer his questions."

Yevgeny Prigozhin (left) with Vladimir Putin in 2011.
Yevgeny Prigozhin (left) with Vladimir Putin in 2011.

Prigozhin, 58, has close personal ties to President Vladimir Putin and has been dubbed "Putin's chef" because his businesses provide catering services to Kremlin events.

He and three related companies have been indicted in the United States on suspicion of executing a Kremlin-directed effort to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election to benefit Donald Trump. He is thought to control the Internet Research Agency, which is better known as the "Petersburg troll factory" and which has been linked to numerous social-media disinformation campaigns against the United States and European companies. He also is thought to control the Vagner private military contractor, which has provided mercenary and other services in eastern Ukraine, Syria, Africa, and elsewhere.

He is under targeted U.S. sanctions for his alleged role in supporting Russia's 2014 annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea and Moscow's military support for separatist formations in parts of eastern Ukraine.

Born in Leningrad in 1961, Prigozhin was convicted of robbery and given a suspended sentence in 1979. In 1981, he was given a 12-year sentence for robbery, fraud, and organizing prostitution. He served the rest of the decade in prison. After his release, he began a career in the food-services business by opening a network of hot-dog stands in St. Petersburg.

Group 24 leader Suhrob Zafar, who lives in self-imposed exile in Europe, said he believes that the letter was written under the "advice" of Tajik authorities seeking to weaken the opposition movement. 

Several former members of the Tajik opposition movement Group 24 have called on the country's Supreme Court to remove it from the list of banned extremist parties, saying "the group no longer poses a threat" to the government.

The leader of Group 24 cried foul, however, suggesting the appeal was made under pressure and vowing that the organization would not drop its opposition to authoritarian President Emomali Rahmon's government.

"Almost all group members who were active in Russia have returned home in recent years, and there is no one left in Russia to promote the movement’s policies," Oyatullo Gilyaev, a former member of Group 24, told RFE/RL on February 26.

A source at the Supreme Court confirmed to RFE/RL that a letter signed by 15 former followers of Group 24 was submitted on February 25. The source was not authorized to discuss the matter on the record, and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The court has not commented publicly on the letter.

Group 24 leader Suhrob Zafar, who lives in self-imposed exile in Europe, said he believes that the letter was written under the "advice" of Tajik authorities seeking to weaken the opposition movement.

Speaking on February 26, Zafar said that "such action would inevitably have an impact on our activities as a political movement."

"Group 24 won’t change its position toward the government," he said.

Sharofiddin Gadoev (file photo)
Sharofiddin Gadoev (file photo)

A prominent Group 24 activist, Sharoffiddin Gadoev, recently resurfaced in Tajikistan after a period living in self-imposed exile in the Netherlands, sparking claims that he was abducted during a trip to Russia.

Tajik authorities insist Gadoev, 33, returned voluntarily on February 15. They shared a video that shows Gadoev criticizing the opposition and urging other activists to follow his suit and return to Tajikistan.

But on February 21, the Dutch Foreign Ministry said Gadoev was arrested on suspicion of "criminal activities," an allegation linked to his business activities in the past.

Tajik authorities have not announced his arrest or commented on the Dutch statement.

Four leading human rights groups -- Human Rights Watch (HRW), the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, the Association of Central Asian Migrants, and the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, Human Rights Watch -- said in a February 24 statement that Gadoev should be released from Tajik custody and allowed to return immediately to the Netherlands, where he is a recognized refugee.

Sources investigating Gadoev’s case learned that Russian security services officers forced Gadoev into their car in Moscow on February 14 and drove him to Domodedovo Airport, where the activist was placed on a flight to Dushanbe, the human rights groups said in their statement.

Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher for HRW, said that in Tajikistan Gadoev is facing "trumped-up charges for his peaceful exercise of freedom of expression."

Group 24 was banned as an "extremist" movement in October 2014, after it called for antigovernment protests in Dushanbe and other cities.

The protests didn’t take place and most of the group members left Tajikistan shortly afterwards.

Some of them have since returned to Tajikistan and leaders of the group say that they were lured back by authorities.

The group’s founder Umarali Quvatov was shot dead in Turkey in 2015. President Rahmon’s opponents claim the killing was orchestrated by Tajik authorities.

Rahmon, who has ruled Tajikistan since 1992, has been repeatedly criticized for crackdowns on dissent.

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