THE Russian Embassy in Pretoria has dismissed as fake news, media reports detailing an alleged plot by a businessman with links to President Vladimir Putin to interfere in South Africa’s elections.
In response to a query by News24, Russian Embassy press-attaché Alexander Kulyaev said Russia “does not interfere or meddle in the internal affairs of other countries” and slammed reports as ‘hit pieces’ designed to portray Russia in a negative light.
Daily Maverick reported on an alleged plot by Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin to discredit opposition party leaders Julius Malema and Mmusi Maimane.
Prigozhin who is known to be close to Putin, is believed to be behind the infamous Internet Research Agency and was one of a handful of people indicted by the US Special Counsel Robert Mueller for interference in the US presidential elections in 2016.
Daily Maverick reported that an NGO named the Association for Free Research and International Cooperation (Afric), together with political technologist Peter Bychkov — who works for Prigozhin — were involved in a scheme to create a disinformation campaign that would create and distribute propaganda against the DA and the EFF, South Africa’s two largest opposition parties.
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 funded by former Russian oligarch turned rights-activist Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
Daily Maverick 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”.
Kulyaev, speaking on behalf of the Embassy, dismissed the documents as fraudulent and classified the Daily Maverick article as a ‘hit piece’.
“We would like to point out that the Daily Maverick article is the latest of a series of publications designed to portray Russia in a negative light, invent and promote a false narrative attempting to involve our country in internal South African politics,” he said.
“As we have repeatedly noted in our official responses to these wild and groundless fabrications (7 articles have prompted reaction from the Embassy starting April this year — is it a coincidence these hit-pieces were published just ahead of the election, with the DM one published on the 7th of May), Russia does not interfere or meddle in internal affairs of other countries, unconditional respect for the right of all nations and peoples to decide their own future and adherence to the principle of non-interference are the core principles of Russia’s foreign policy.”
Kulyaev was also asked to respond to an article published by the Guardian, quoting the Daily Maverick piece and the same documents.
The campaign against Malema and Maimane, ultimately aimed at benefit ting the ANC, 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 reported.
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.
Kulyaev said the Daily Maverick and Guardian articles “on first glance do differ from previous Russo-phobic speculative fiction that emerged in SA media” the month prior.
“[This is] as [they] refer not only to hearsay but to documents provided by the so-called Dossier Centre. But that is a carefully constructed illusion that dissipates under a closer examination. The entire premise is based on scanned Word-documents with bullet-points detailing nefarious plans to influence the SA election. Do we need to point out how ridiculous this sounds and how easy it is to fabricate such evidence?” Kulyaev stated.
Kulyaev further denied the Embassy had any knowledge of persons named Peter Bychkov or Yulia Afanasyeva (Prigozhin’s employees). News24 asked whether individuals by these names had entered South Africa to the Embassy’s knowledge.
The query also extended to a list of names included in Special Counsel Mueller’s indictment.— News 24.