Prigozhin's violent death restores Putin's aura as a ruthless president | International

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Five years ago, in the documentary putinby journalist Andrei Kondrashov, the Russian president emphasized that he can forgive everything, except one sin: "Treason". In Russia there is a suspicion that the death on Wednesday of the owner of the Wagner Group, Yevgueni Prigozhin, was a settling of scores for his disloyalty towards the Russian leader. Unlike other murders, Moscow has not been quick to attribute this attack to Ukraine and has denied its responsibility with some contempt. Guilty or not, the death of the head of the mercenaries along with nine other people has been interpreted in Russia as a warning to anyone who dares to move from their place. Furthermore, thanks to the Prigozhin mutiny two months ago, the Kremlin has a pretext for putting aside the formalisms of a democracy, such as the right to a fair trial. In fact, it is no coincidence that the evaluation of Josef Stalin has improved in the last year, since for many Russians it is synonymous with victory and order. The victims are the least of it.

Sergei Mironov, head of Russia Fair-For the Truth, one of the Kremlin's satellite parties, shared a surprisingly honest message on his social networks: “Yevgeny Prigozhin upset too many people in Russia, Ukraine and the West. The number of enemies reached a critical point. In his case, it was not abstract death that marked him, but a specific scum. Your gift, Zhenia (the hammer used by the Wagner Group to carry out executions), will always remind me that things don't happen on their own, that we must fight."

Antón Barbashin, director of the Riddle analysis center, tells EL PAÍS by phone: “The Kremlin wants to make this a visible, big story. Show the Russian military at home and abroad that any sign of disloyalty will be punished." The way in which the businessman died, in such a violent way and when he supposedly had been forgiven, has been a surprise. "It was always present that Prigozhin would be assassinated, albeit in Africa or elsewhere," he adds.

Wagner's owner had been invited by the Kremlin to the Russia-Africa Forum in Saint Petersburg at the end of July. The businessman posed smiling with the delegates of the countries where his mercenaries were operating and praised Putin for his rapprochement with the continent. It seemed that everything had been left behind and the founder of Wagner was, as in the Martin Scorsese film, one of ours.

Alexander Baunov, an analyst at the Carnegie Center, emphasizes in his essay Russia after Prigozhin: "An important punishment technique both within a dictatorship and within a criminal group is that the annihilation of the enemy is preceded by an appearance of reconciliation, forgiveness and, sometimes, even closeness with the boss."

After having pretended for years that Russia respects the institutions within its own form of democracy, as has been done with the trials of opponents, with Wagner executions without trial were normalized. The company leaked a video in November purporting to teach a lesson by hammering to death a Russian citizen, Yevgeny Nuzhin, for surrendering at the front. The group had exchanged him for other prisoners with Ukraine. "This is none of our business," the president's spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, responded to requests to investigate the event.

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Analyst Alexander Baunov adds, referring to vague concepts such as loyalty to the leader: "It is likely that the elimination of the democratic and judicial scenario will continue beyond the Russian elections (in March), and finally it can be reaffirmed that the political and legal system Russian is not a variation of the Western, but something completely different within the doctrine of a unique Russian civilization where legal categories are replaced by informal concepts.

It is quite possible that Putin will become more harsh as the tidal wave rises. Stalin's model is somewhat inspiring. According to a survey by the Levada Center for Sociological Studies, 63% of Russians today sympathize with the dictator, compared to 45% five years ago. Anton Barbashin, director of the Riddle analysis center, explains: “Their popularity grows because they don't see it like you or me, in terms of blood and repression. It is the cult of victory. When they think of Stalin, they think of him winning the war, he had everything under control and he was predictable, they don't think of the purges and the thousands of victims”.

A patriot who betrayed Putin

The death of Prigozhin, like the arrest of General Sergei Surovikin and the trial of the paramilitary Igor Girkin Strelkov for his criticism of the direction of the war, represent a warning for the ultranationalist sector, but not a change in what the last decades have been. russian.

Barbashin is of the opinion that “the Rubicon (of Putin) has been the war itself, or the assassination of Boris Nemtsov —oppositionist and former deputy prime minister—, or the poisonings (of dissidents). There were already several Rubicons before.

Many Russian personalities, including some adversaries, have defined Prigozhin as "a true patriot", but stress that he made the mistake of betraying Putin's trust in his fight with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, one of the few people who make up really part of the president's inner circle. In addition, he had broken the law of silence by showing the hardest side of the war, the corpses of the Russians, and his popularity threatened the authorities.

“Prigozhin was not part of the elite,” Barbashin emphasizes. "He was an interloper used by Putin and there was a feeling that he was threatening them by saying that their sons should be sent to war or that they should not be living life in Moscow while others are dying."

For Tatiana Stanovaya, a Carnegie analyst and founder of the R. Politik think tank, "no matter the cause of the plane crash, everyone will see it as an act of retaliation and revenge, and the Kremlin will not counter this opinion." "From Putin's perspective, as well as that of many members of the army and security forces, Prigozhin's death should serve as a lesson," adds the expert, who with this air disaster considers the only question that remained after the rebellion answered. : whether Prigozhin's merits “were enough to let him live”.

The conclusion most shared by analysts is that the Kremlin wants to be feared. "Destroying the plane, two months after the pacts with Wagner, is something new even for Putin," writes the veteran journalist Vitali Portnikov on the portal Granny. “This novelty confirms that he is not interested in anything other than fear. That anyone whose actions make it possible to doubt that he does not control power is doomed; that his partners and accomplices are afraid of him, not love or respect ”.

For Putin, Stanovaya points out, once Wagner was reorganized, a person "of whom he publicly said that he stuck a knife in his back" was no longer necessary. Other paramilitaries share the same opinion. “At the top of the pyramid of power they are in no hurry to take the steps expected of them to change certain figures: (I wish) the kingdom of heaven for Prigozhin, but even he, showing his utmost devotion to the president, it turned out to be capable of unpredictable actions,” reflected this week separatist commander Alexander Khodakovsky, one of the few paramilitary leaders from the 2014 Donbas war who has not been killed in an unsolved attack.

“Yevgeny Viktorovich (Prigozhin) was an important person at the national level, but lately he did not see, or did not want to see, the full picture of what is happening in the country. I asked him to drop personal ambitions,” said Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, who tempered his criticism of the Russian high command when Prigozhin began crossing the red lines in the spring.

In any case, the experts agree that the death of the businessman, despite the indignation provoked, will not destabilize anything in the short term. “For a sizable section of the conservative public, his death is well deserved; and sympathizers largely condemned the riot because they believed it weakened the wartime regime,” Stanovaya says. “Furthermore, his passing is a direct threat to everyone who followed him to the end or openly supported him. It is more likely that [su muerte] intimidate to inspire protest, and no special reaction should be expected."

A 30 year relationship

When Putin recalled the figure of Prigozhin on Friday, he provided a detail that he had so far denied: he said he had known him "since the early 1990s." Until now, the official version was that their lives intersected in the early 2000s, when Prigozhin worked at the catering of a summit with Jacques Chirac and George Bush Jr., thanks to the fact that the businessman had become known among the elite through his luxurious restaurant in Saint Petersburg, Staraya Tamódzhnaya.

In Russia's wild early 1990s, Putin, a former KGB member, was deputy mayor of St. Petersburg and responsible for overseeing the casinos. The king of gambling in the city was Mikhail Mirilashvili, who hired Putin's then partner and bodyguard, Roman Tsepov, for the security of his casinos.

Coincidentally, Mirilashvili financed that Prigozhin restaurant, although some researchers suggest that he had worked for him before in his casinos. Tsépov, for his part, would die in 2004 after having tea with former colleagues of the successor to the KGB, the FSB that Putin led in 1998, before being chosen by Boris Yeltsin as his successor. The investigation postmortem revealed that he had been poisoned with radioactive material, like former spy Alexander Litvinenko.

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