Yevgeny Prigozhin. (Photo by Mikhail Metzel\TASS via Getty Images)
An alleged plot to interfere in the South African elections by a Russian businessman with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, in order to give the ANC a boost at the polls, has been exposed.
Daily Maverick reported on Tuesday that an NGO named the Association for Free Research and International Cooperation (Afric), together with political technologist Peter Bychkov – who works for Yevgeny Prigozhin – were involved in a scheme to create a disinformation campaign that would create and distribute propaganda against the DA and the EFF, the two largest opposition parties in the country.
Prigozhin’s employee Yulia Afanasyeva was the author of a series of documents seen by Daily Maverick and obtained by the Dossier Centre, an investigative unit based in London that is funded by former Russian oligarch turned rights-activist Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
DM reported that the documents showed that Bychkov had dispatched political analysts to South Africa in February 2019, under the wing of Afric and the International Anti-Crisis Centre (IAC), which the publication described as a "geopolitical research centre whose work aligns with Russian geopolitical strategy, both of which are used as a cover for Prigozhin’s activities in South Africa".
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Last year, Prigozhin was indicted by US special counsel Robert Mueller, who was tasked to investigate whether President Donald Trump’s campaign had colluded with Russia during his 2016 election.
Mueller’s indictment of Prigozhin and several others, which can be downloaded here, places Prigozhin as the funder of the Internet Research Agency (IRA) - Russia’s prolific and global disinformation warfare weapon.
The IRA was responsible for an extensive social media campaign in 2016 that sought to mobilise support for Trump and to discredit the Democratic Party candidate, Hillary Clinton.
'Producing pro-ANC posters'
Russian hackers did eventually gain access to a private Clinton email server used while she was secretary of state, and gave the contents to WikiLeaks.
DM also revealed several business interests that Prigozhin was exploring in South Africa.
The Guardian reported that Moscow’s goal was to tarnish the reputations of DA and EFF leaders, Mmusi Maimane and Julius Malema.
This would be through "public rhetoric, generating and disseminating video content, coordinating with a loyal pool of journalists and producing pro-ANC videos".
Prigozhin is linked to the Wagner Group, a paramilitary organisation that has been active in several African states, including the Central African Republic. His political operatives popped up last year in Sudan and tried unsuccessfully to keep President Omar al-Bashir in power. They also travelled to Madagascar ahead of elections there last November, the Guardian report reads.
The alleged South Africa operation was smaller and more lacklustre than Moscow’s recent extensive effort in Sudan. Nevertheless, it appears to be an example of the Kremlin’s ambition, opportunism, and desire to stop dead in its tracks any "pro-western" shift, whether in Africa or elsewhere, the newspaper added.
Both reports conclude that the operation was not very effective and that no evidence exists that any disinformation campaign had been detected so far.