CNN’s Chief International Correspondent Clarissa Ward travels to the Central African Republic (CAR) – the heart of Wagner’s empire in Africa – weeks after the death of Yevgeny Prigozhin to find Russia appearing to consolidate the mercenary group’s operations while continuing to exert its influence.
The message that Moscow wants to project seems to be: that it’s business as usual.
On his final trip to the CAR last month, former Wagner boss 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.
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.
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.
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 how 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.