Bangui, Central African Republic
On his last trip to Central African Republic (CAR) last month, ex Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin he visited la Maison Russe, or Russian House, a cultural center near the Russian embassy in the capital, where he posed for selfies with his lieutenants and local residents.
The institute and its diverse activities are a clear example of how the mercenary group has become a representative of the Russian state in the country and a symbol of challenges to the president. Vladimir Putin as they try to download the check.
Russian flag flying in front of la Maison Russe or Russian House, a cultural center in Bangui.
From Prigozhin coup attempt in June and the subsequent death of plane crash outside of Moscow just two months later, Russia was engaged in a high-stakes scramble to centralize its empire on the African continent, which includes thousands of fighters, a wide range of business interests and numerous soft power initiatives like this one.
As the Kremlin seeks to rein in Wagner’s growing business network, what’s next for the group remains unclear. In Bangui, however, signs are beginning to emerge of what the future may hold in CAR, one of the organization’s first client states and its laboratory on the continent. Here, Russia appears to be consolidating Wagner’s operations while continuing to exert its influence. The message Moscow wants to project seems to be: it’s business as usual.
Russian dominance is visible everywhere. At roadside bars, locals drink Africa Ti L’Or beer and Wa-Na-Wa vodka, produced by a Wagner-linked company. Meanwhile, fighter jets donated by the Russians whistle for combat sorties overhead.
The Russian tricolor flies above the cultural center. Outside, a merry-go-round topped with an onion dome spins in the courtyard.
“Maison Russe is the nerve center of all of Wagner’s activities in the Central African Republic,” Nathalia Dukhan, chief investigator for The Sentry, a US nonprofit that tracked Wagner around the country, told CNN.
According to The Sentry, the center is home to a diverse range of operations associated with Wagner’s business endeavors — the group uses it to sell gold and diamonds and for VIP entertainment. It holds events aimed at “spreading Russian culture while promoting a pro-Moscow perception of international relations,” Dukhan said.
Mercenaries from the Wagner Group have been operating in the Central African Republic since at least 2018, protecting President Faustin-Archange Touadera and training army recruits. Wagner units have they fought the rebels in the country’s more than decade-long civil conflict, while expanding Russia’s reach in the mineral-rich country. Wagner has secured a number of generous mining concessions in the country in search of diamonds and gold, and is heavily involved in the timber industry.
Masked Wagner mercenaries outside a grocery store in the capital.
All Eyes on Wagner, an open-source initiative tracking the group, said the Russian House is registered as a business in Bangui but has no ties to Rossotrudnichestvo, the Russian state agency coordinating cultural institutes around the world.
“Maison Russe … is a prime example of how Wagner’s group was a proxy for the Russian state,” All Eyes on Wagner told CNN. It added that it serves the interests of both Wagner and Russia: “Promoting Wagner beers through exclusive events, screening Wagner films, hosting Prigozhin and inviting Russian MoD delegations to lectures on military cooperation between Russia and the Central African Republic.
The center has long been led by Dmitry Syty, Prigozhin’s former deputy, who, according to the European Council, played a “leading role” for Wagner in the Central African Republic.
But Syty, who is sanctioned by the European Union and the United States “for serious violations of human rights”, and survived assassination attempt in December 2022, may be replaced.
Local media recently reported that a new director, identified as Nafisa, had joined the Russian House. She was photographed in Prigozhin’s photo on his last visit to CAR, but there is no evidence that she had any connection with Wagner before April.
Access to the Russian House is extremely limited. No Western journalists were allowed access, and CNN’s requests to film at the center were reportedly repeatedly refused by the new director. When a CNN team visited the site using a hidden camera, she introduced herself as Nafisa Kiryanova.
All eyes on Wagner/Twitter
Anfisa Alexandrovna Kiryanova (right) appears in the background of a photograph of Prigozhin outside the Russian House last month.
Based on social media accounts and other linked profiles, CNN has learned that she also goes by another name: Anfisa Alexandrovna Kiryanova. A YouTube channel associated with Kiryan reveals that she shared video reviews of cosmetics as recently as nine months ago. In a biography shared online, she claims to have worked as a translator and attended the Sorbonne in Paris and the Moscow State University of Linguistics.
Dressed in local clothing and silver high heels, CNN gave a brief tour of the institute. Russian language classes were held in three tents outside the center and Russian films were shown in the cinema hall.
A masked man who appeared to be a mercenary Wagner walked past the tents to the parking lot behind them. Kirjan would not confirm who he was or show CNN the restricted area he was headed to.
When CNN pressed Kiryanova about her appearance against the backdrop of photos taken by Prigozhin at the center, she shied away, asking, “For God’s sake, can you show me that?” After being shown the pictures, she reluctantly admitted, “Okay, yes, that’s good.”
Regarding Prigozhin’s visit and the future of Wagner in the Central African Republic, Kiryanova said that his death means nothing for the Russian mission in the country.
“Does anything change when, I don’t know, the president of your country dies? Does it mean that your country will cease to exist?… The mission remains, the Russian cultural mission remains,” she said.
When asked who now oversees the center, Kirjanova replied that Syty is “responsible for being the head of the entire mission and directing some other directions.”
Syty and Wagner’s security adviser to President Touadera, Vitali Perfilev, who is also sanctioned by the US and the European Union, are among Wagner’s old guard still in place in CAR as of late last week. A diplomatic official, who spoke to CNN on condition of anonymity, said the two men had returned to Moscow and returned, suggesting they had signed new contracts with the Russian Defense Ministry.
Both have retreated into the shadows in recent months, declining CNN’s repeated requests for interviews.
A diplomatic official said Wagner made a lasting mark on CAR when there were only about 1,000 mercenaries on the ground. Now Russia is embarking on a coordinated reorganization to try to reduce Wagner’s operating costs in the Central African Republic, the official said. This effort is two-pronged: forcing fighters to sign new treaties and pulling them back to concentrate control in major population centers.
In July and August, Ilyushin IL-76 transport planes rotated weekly to take the fighters back to Moscow to sign contracts, the official said, adding that an estimated 150 did not return.
In the capital, there are obvious signs of a regrouping of troops.
Wagner’s mercenaries drive around Bangui in unmarked pickup trucks painted green or sand. They are out on the streets shopping at grocery stores, dressed in balaclavas, to pick up cookies, bananas, and bottles of Coca-Cola. Wagner’s protocol dictates that she must cover her face at all times—even in situations like browsing for shoes at a flea market.
Despite Wagner’s failed rebellion and Prigozhin’s subsequent death a thousand miles to the north, little has changed in the CAR’s relationship with Russia, according to Fidèle Gouandjik, a senior adviser to President Touadera.
CNN met with Gouandjika at his headquarters in the capital. Tall and grizzled, he wore a T-shirt that read “Je suis Wagner” — “I am Wagner” in French — and claimed Prigozhin himself had given it to him. “He was my friend, he was my best friend in front of all the Central African people,” he said of the late mercenary chief.
Fidèle Gouandjika, chief adviser to President Touadera, outside his residence in Bangui.
“The Russians have given us peace,” he said, adding: “we are very happy that Mr. Yevgeny Prigozhin pushed out the rebels in a short time, one year, and our country is occupied by our army 100 percent.”
Gouandjika claimed that Putin had recently spoken to Touadera and assured him that: “Everything will be like yesterday. Tomorrow and the day after will be better. So we have no regrets.”