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The Week In Russia: Lies, Damned Lies, Statistics -- And Eye Of Newt

Russian tycoon Yevgeny Prigozhin's claim that he met with anticorruption campaigner Aleksei Navalny made waves in Russia this week.
Russian tycoon Yevgeny Prigozhin's claim that he met with anticorruption campaigner Aleksei Navalny made waves in Russia this week.

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"Putin's chef" serves up a poisonous allegation against prominent Putin foe Aleksei Navalny, who accuses him of lying, while an upbeat economic report prompts suspicion that the Russian statistics agency is cooking the books, and pro-Putin witches try to brew up trouble for the Kremlin's enemies. 'Nastya Rybka' speaks to the media, but raises questions about what she says by saying she's been told what to say. Viktor Yanukovych breaks a long silence to say ... not very much, and Vladimir Zhirinovsky's call for followers on Instagram suggests the voluble politician is getting less mileage from his motormouth in the Internet age.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

'Nothing To Do With Anything'

In Russia and perhaps in other countries as well, some of the less credible denials go like this: It didn't happen and it's not my fault.

A classic of the genre comes from Yevgeny Prigozhin, commenting for an article in The Bell that traced the roots of the "private military company" known as Vagner and outlined evidence pointing to his extensive ties to the outfit.

Vagner "does not exist," Prigozhin contended, so he could not have been involved.

Despite the evidence, Prigozhin has also denied involvement in the Internet Research Agency, a St. Petersburg "troll farm" that U.S. investigators say meddled in the 2016 presidential election by placing politically divisive posts and ads that reached millions of U.S. voters on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media.

But for a guy who says he has nothing to do with anything -- не при чем is the Russian term -- Prigozhin has popped up in an awful lot of Russia stories lately, abroad and at home.

Front And Center

Late last month, Reuters reported that Russian military contractors linked to Vagner had been flown to Venezuela to step up security for embattled President Nicolas Maduro, who has given Moscow its biggest foothold in Latin America.

At home, the ex-convict who has been called "Putin's chef" made a bigger splash, wading right into a conflict with one of Putin's most prominent foes, Aleksei Navalny.

Yevgeny Prigozhin (left) with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2010.
Yevgeny Prigozhin (left) with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2010.

Prigozhin normally tends to fade into the background even when he is at the center of things, as demonstrated in footage that appeared to show him standing off to the side at a high-level military meeting with a Libyan delegation in Moscow -- though he then appears seated at the table.

After a report said that Navalny had met with him at a St. Petersburg hotel, Prigozhin did not linger long on the sidelines: His office told the BBC Russian Service that the meeting -- swiftly and directly denied by Navalny -- did take place. And it went much further than that, adding a detail that, if true, could severely damage Navalny's reputation.

It alleged that Navalny offered to stop publishing compromising material about Prigozhin's business in exchange for support for the opposition politician's allies in upcoming municipal elections in St. Petersburg. And it added a little piece of trolling, saying that Prigozhin responded with a belittling quip: "I don't exchange soldiers for a marshal."

Navalny's response: "Prigozhin is lying and no meeting took place."

It's hard to know what to believe these days -- and analysts say that's the point of a lot of what Russia has been saying in the past half-decade, from the now-debunked suggestion that MH17, the passenger jet that crashed in the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine in July 2014, was shot down by a Ukrainian warplane to the assertion that the two Russians accused of poisoning Sergei Skripal and his daughter with a deadly nerve agent in England last March were merely tourists interested in the soaring spire of the cathedral at Salisbury.

When there's so much conflicting information, it can be hard to keep track of what's been said, let alone what may or may or not be true.

Take the story of Nastya Rybka -- please.

The Belarusian escort, whose real name is Anastasia Vashukevich, made waves a year ago. when Navalny published an exposé based largely on photos and video she had posted on social media. They showed her on a yacht with Kremlin-connected tycoon Oleg Derispaska and Sergei Prikhodko, a Russian deputy prime minister at the time and a longtime former foreign-policy aide to Putin.

'Missing Link'

After her arrest in the Thai beach resort of Pattaya in February, Vashukevich fueled further speculation when she said, in a video shot in a police van and posted on Instagram, that she had 16 hours of audio and video proving ties between Russian officials and Donald Trump's campaign in the 2016 U.S. election

"I am the only witness and the missing link in the connection between Russia and the U.S. elections," Vashukevich said.

Nearly a year later, that link is still missing -- and seems unlikely to turn up, if it exists.

After being arrested upon arrival in Moscow following months behind bars in Thailand, Anastasia Vashukevich suggested that she was finished talking, but then gave several interviews. They shed little light on the claim that got the most attention -- that she had information about Russia's role in the U.S. election.

In part, that's because she said she had been told what to say, suggesting that "she may have traded her silence for security," as an Associated Press (AP) article about its interview with Vashukevich put it.

The Escort And The Oligarch: 'Nastya Rybka' Goes From Accusation To Apology
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Contradicting earlier reports that said she had destroyed the recordings, Vashukevich told AP that she has turned the material over to Deripaska. But that statement was undermined by what she said in a BBC interview a little earlier: That she had been told -- presumably by the Russian authorities -- what to say.

"I was explained how I can talk about it," Vashukevich told the BBC. "And I have to live here. The official version is that I haven't got any records and whatever records there were are gone."

The interviews came in the days after Vashukevich failed to show up at her own widely anticipated and well-attended press conference in Moscow on January 23.

In Absentia

Another Moscow press conference that failed to impress was the one held by ousted former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych on February 6, two weeks after a Kyiv court convicted him in absentia of treason and "complicity in waging an aggressive war against Ukraine" -- the latter charge a reference to Russia's seizure of Crimea and role in a war that has killed more than 10,000 people since April 2014.

Yanukovych did show up, breaking more than a year of virtual silence. But anyone expecting a bombshell -- let alone a piece of hard news amid the talk of the soul and values, and a message echoing Kremlin criticism of Ukraine's current president ahead of a March 31 election -- would have been disappointed. One Moscow reporter sought to capture the mood by tweeting a photograph of a journalist who seemed to be fast asleep.

Yanukovych fled to Russia when he was pushed from power by the massive Maidan protest movement five years ago, after he scrapped plans for a landmark deal with the European Union and said Kyiv would pursue closer trade ties with Moscow. The treason charge stemmed in part from the deaths of more than 100 people in clashes between protesters and security forces, some of them shot dead by snipers.

Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych gesticulates at his Moscow press conference on February 6.
Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych gesticulates at his Moscow press conference on February 6.

He held a few press conferences in his first year in exile, but his remarks seemed to lose relevance quickly. More than four years later -- despite the conviction and 13-year prison sentence handed to Yanukovych, who seems unlikely to return to Ukraine to serve a day of it -- "barely made a ripple in the news flow in Ukraine," one journalist remarked on Twitter. "The nation has moved a long way past him and the wounds he inflicted."

If remarks by Prigozhin, Vashukevich, and others left Russians wondering what to believe, the same goes for an unexpectedly upbeat economic figure from the state statistics agency, which reported that Russia's gross domestic product (GDP) rose 2.3 percent -- much higher than the 1.8 percent previously forecast by the Economic Development Ministry and the biggest spike since 2012.

Wrong Way

"New miracles from Rosstat," was how one headline put it, while Russia-watchers voiced varying degrees of doubt, taking it with anything from a "pretty sizable grain of salt" to a brimming bowl of the stuff.

A Bloomberg article, however, made a case that rather than lies or damn lies, the figure may have been the product of Russia's "perennially poor statistics."

Either way, not great news for Putin, who could have used a bit of a boost.

Polls have pointed to a decline in trust and approval since he won a new six-year term last March, and a new poll result from the independent Levada Center may be more startling: It showed that, for the first time since 2006, more Russians believe the country is moving in the wrong direction than the right direction.

While Putin may not be able to count on statistics or opinion poll results, he got an avid show of support from a coven of self-styled witches who, wearing black hoods and flowing robes over their street clothes, chanted about "the greatness of Russia" and called for "foes" to be cursed.

'A Charm Of Powerful Trouble'

One of them, sounding like those curiously robotic-toned citizens one occasionally interviews while reporting ahead of an election, stated: "Of course it's necessary to support the government, and Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin first and foremost."

'Cursed Be The Foes!': Witches Cast Spells For Putin
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On Twitter, one journalist made mention of the pro-Putin witches in the context of Dennis Christensen, a Danish member of the Jehovah's Witnesses who was convicted on an extremism charge and sentenced to six years in prison on February 6 by a court in Oryol, where he has lived for years.

Acquittals are extremely rare in Russia, but the six-year sentence seemed surprising, perhaps, after Putin seemed to suggest the state might review the "extremist" designation imposed on the Jehovah's Witnesses in 2016.

Dennis Christensen (center), a Jehovah's Witness, has been sentenced to six years in Russia on extremism charges.
Dennis Christensen (center), a Jehovah's Witness, has been sentenced to six years in Russia on extremism charges.

In remarks in December, Putin said that "Jehovah's Witnesses are Christians, too," and that it is "complete nonsense" in some cases to "label representatives of religious communities as members of destructive, even terrorist, organizations."

Stop Making Sense

Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said at the time that the Kremlin would look into the matter, but no further announcements have been made. Asked about the Christensen's verdict on February 7, Peskov's response raised eyebrows.

"In governing, we can't operate on the basis of common sense," he said. "First of all, we operate in terms of what is legal and illegal."

In retrospect, Peskov may wish he had chosen his words more carefully. Normally, the many answers he dishes out daily -- or non-answers, as the case may be -- cause little controversy.

Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky (file photo)
Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky (file photo)

Meanwhile, a Russian politician who has been using words to cause controversy for a quarter-century is angling for a wider audience.
Could it be a sign that, with more Russians getting their news and views from social media these days, Vladimir Zhirinovsky -- who long commanded a great deal of attention and at times sought to charge for interviews -- is having trouble finding an audience?

"Friends, read me on Telegram," Zhirinovsky tweeted on February 6, referring to the messaging app that Russia tried to shut down on its territory last year with little success. "I try to react quickly to the main events of the day."

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

About This Newsletter

The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country and in its war against Ukraine, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

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