By Sebastian Shukla, Brent Swails, Clarissa Ward and Scott McWhinnie, CNN
Bangui, Central African Republic (CNN) — On his final trip to the Central African Republic (CAR) last month, the former Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin visited la Maison Russe, or the Russian House, a cultural center near the Russian embassy in the capital, where he posed for selfies with his lieutenants and locals.
The institute, and its diverse activities, are stark examples of how the mercenary group has become a stand-in for the Russian state in the country, and a symbol of the challenges ahead for President Vladimir Putin as he tries to pull back control.
Since Prigozhin’s attempted coup in June and subsequent death in a plane crash outside Moscow just two months later, Russia has been engaged in a high-stakes scramble to centralize his empire on the African continent, which includes thousands of fighters, a vast array of business holdings and multiple soft power initiatives such as this one.
As the Kremlin tries to get its arms around Wagner’s sprawling commercial network, what’s next for the group remains unclear. But signs of what the future may hold in the CAR, one of the organization’s first client states and its laboratory on the continent, are beginning to emerge in Bangui. Here Russia appears to be consolidating Wagner’s operations while continuing to exert its influence. The message that Moscow wants to project seems to be: it’s business as usual.
Russia’s dominance is visible everywhere. At roadside bars, locals sip Africa Ti L’Or beer and Wa-Na-Wa vodka manufactured by a company linked to Wagner. Meanwhile, Russian-donated fighter jets whistle on sorties overhead.
At the cultural center, a Russian tricolor flag flutters above. Outside, a carousel topped with an onion dome spins in the courtyard.
“The Maison Russe is the nerve center of all of Wagner’s activities in the Central African Republic,” Nathalia Dukhan, a senior investigator at The Sentry, a US nonprofit that has monitored Wagner across the country, told CNN.
According to The Sentry, the center is home to a diverse range of operations linked to Wagner’s business endeavors – the group uses it to sell its gold and diamonds and entertain VIPs. It runs events designed to “spread Russian culture while promoting a pro-Moscow perception of international relations,” Dukhan said.
Mercenaries from the Wagner group have operated in the CAR since at least 2018, protecting President Faustin-Archange Touadera and training army recruits. Wagner troops have fought rebels in the country’s civil conflict, which has lasted for more than a decade, while extending Russia’s reach in the mineral-rich nation. Wagner has secured a series of generous mining concessions in the country to prospect for diamonds and gold, and is heavily involved in the timber industry.
All Eyes on Wagner, an open-source initiative tracking the group, said that the Russian House is incorporated as a business in Bangui yet has no links to the Rossotrudnichestvo agency, which is the Russian state agency coordinating cultural institutes worldwide.
“Maison Russe… is a prime example of how the Wagner group has been a substitute to the Russian state,” All Eyes on Wagner told CNN. It added that it serves both Wagner and Russia’s interests: “Promoting Wagner’s beers through exclusive events, projecting Wagner films, hosting Prigozhin and inviting Russian MoD delegations to give lectures on Russian-CAR military cooperation.”
The center has long been headed up by Dmitry Syty, a former Prigozhin deputy who has played “a leading role” in the CAR for Wagner, according to the European Council.
But Syty, who is sanctioned by the European Union and United States “for serious human rights abuses,” and survived an assassination attempt in December 2022, may have been replaced.
Local media recently reported that a new director had taken over at the Russian House, referring to her as Nafisa. She was pictured in the photographs of Prigozhin on his final visit to the CAR but there is no evidence of her having any affiliation with Wagner before April.
Access to the Russian House is extremely restricted. No Western journalists have been granted access, and CNN’s requests to film at the center were repeatedly rebuffed by the supposedly new director. When a CNN team visited the site using a hidden camera, she introduced herself as Nafisa Kiryanova.
Drawing on social media accounts and other linked profiles, CNN has discovered that she also goes by another name: Anfisa Alexandrovna Kiryanova. A YouTube channel linked to Kiryanova reveals that as recently as nine months ago she was sharing video reviews of cosmetics. On a resume shared online, she claims to have worked as a translator and attended the Sorbonne in Paris and Moscow State Linguistic University.
Dressed in local clothing and silver high heels, she gave CNN a brief tour of the institute. In three tents outside the center, Russian language classes were taking place, while Russian movies were being screened in a cinema room.
A masked man, who appeared to be a Wagner mercenary, walked past the tents to a parking lot behind. Kiryanova would not confirm who he was or show CNN the restricted area where he was headed.
When CNN pushed Kiryanova about her appearance in the background of photographs taken of Prigozhin at the center, she was evasive, asking: “Oh my God, can you show me that?” After being shown the pictures, she begrudgingly conceded: “Okay, yeah, that’s good.”
Speaking about Prigozhin’s visit and the future of Wagner in the CAR, Kiryanova said that his death meant nothing for Russia’s mission in the country.
“Does it change anything if, I don’t know, the president of your country dies? Does it mean that your country ceases to exist?… The mission continues to be, the Russian cultural mission continues to be,” she said.
Asked who oversaw the center now, Kiryanova said Syty was “responsible for the head of the whole mission and he runs some other directions.”
Syty and Wagner’s security adviser to President Touadera, Vitali Perfilev, who is also sanctioned by the US and European Union, are among Wagner’s old guard still on the ground in the CAR as of late last week. A diplomatic official speaking to CNN on the condition of anonymity said that the two men had gone back to Moscow and returned, suggesting they had signed new contracts with Russia’s Ministry of Defence.
Both have retreated into the shadows in recent months and refused CNN’s repeated requests for interviews.
The diplomatic official said Wagner made a lasting mark on the CAR with only about 1,000 mercenaries on the ground. Now, Russia is embarking on a concerted reorganization, with an attempt to lower Wagner’s operating costs in the CAR, the official said. That effort is two pronged: to force fighters to sign new contracts and pull them back to concentrate control in major population centers.
In July and August, Ilyushin IL-76 transport planes were rotating weekly to take fighters back to Moscow to sign contracts, the official said, adding that an estimated 150 have not returned.
There are obvious signs of a reconcentration of troops across the capital.
Wagner mercenaries drive around Bangui in unmarked pickup trucks painted a green or sand color. They are out on the streets and shop at grocery stores, clad in balaclavas to pick up cookies, bananas, and bottles of Coca-Cola. Wagner protocol dictates they must always cover their faces – even in situations such as browsing for shoes at a flea market.
Despite the failed Wagner mutiny and Prigozhin’s subsequent death thousands of miles to the north, little has changed for the CAR’s relationship with Russia, according to Fidèle Gouandjika, a senior adviser to President Touadera.
CNN met with Gouandjika at his mansion in the capital. Tall and greying, he wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the message “Je suis Wagner” – “I am Wagner,” in French – claiming it was given to him by Prigozhin himself. “He was my friend, he was my best friend in front of all central African people,” he said of the late mercenary boss.
“The Russians gave us peace,” he said, adding: “we are very glad that Mr. Yevgeny Prigozhin in little time, one year, pushed out the rebels, and our country is occupied by our army 100%.”
Gouandjika claimed that Putin spoke to Touadera recently and reassured him that: “‘Everything will be like yesterday. It will be better tomorrow and after tomorrow. So we have no regrets.’”
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CNN’s Gianluca Mezzofiore contributed to this report.