Young women walked onto the podium in bright pink and blue evening dresses made from African “wax fabric”. The “Miss Bangui” competition was getting underway at the Hotel Ledger, a rundown place with a fancy-looking facade that plays a central role as a meeting place in the Central African Republic’s capital as it is the city’s only five-star hotel.

Their hair pulled up in buns, earrings and necklaces glinting, they came to the front of the stage one after the other to pose, perching on high heels. The frozen smiles, the music, the “quiz” to test the candidates’ knowledge: all the familiar stereotypes of beauty contests were on display. At the same time, there was another show underway — one that symbolizes the country’s new direction.

Near the front several CAR ministers and officials watched the models perform from a VIP table covered with a white tablecloth. But judging by their body language, the most important VIPs here were several Russian officials sitting beside them. One, the first secretary at the Russian Embassy, Viktor Tokmakov. The other, Valery Zakharov, a former member of the Russian intelligence services, now working as security advisor to the country’s President Faustin-Archange Touadéra. And the on-stage battle to become “Miss Bangui” was sponsored by a Russian company with close ties to the Kremlin.

Miss Russie 2013, Elmira Abdrazak, félicite les participantes au concours de Miss Centrafrique, au stade 20 000 places de Bangui.

The beauty contest in this war-torn, mineral-rich African nation is just the latest indication of Russia’s growing interest in the continent and its willingness to confront traditional Western power-brokers with “hearts-and-minds” initiatives and not just hard-nosed security assistance.

It is part of a campaign aimed both at securing a slice of the Central African Republic’s rich reserves of diamonds, gold and uranium, while at the same time building a new axis of Russian influence across the continent, sometimes at the expense of the old colonial powers. France, in CAR’s case.

In the streets of Bangui, billboards are filled with the colors of the CAR flag announcing the opening of a new Russian-funded radio station called “Lengo Songo, 98.9 FM” — which means “Build Solidarity.” For now, it is only broadcasting music, but there are plans for news and talk shows.

This summer and fall, Russian money paid for “The Cup of Hope”, a youth soccer tournament in Bangui — made up of two female and eight male teams — following the FIFA World Cup in Russia. There was a drawing and poetry contest dubbed “Peace Through the Eyes of Children,” organized jointly by the CAR ministry of education and the Russian embassy. The prize was a beach holiday in Russia-annexed Crimea.

Blurred lines

The two Russians looked bored as they watched the beauty contest, but they smiled politely and applauded as the girls paused each time on stage. And when the winner was announced, it was the security advisor Zakharov who went on stage to congratulate her and award her prize. (When the final “Miss Centrafrique” competition was held earlier this month, they flew in “Miss Russia 2013” to give the winner her crown.)

This meant that, in effect, Zakharov was taking precedence over Tokmakov, the officially-accredited diplomat at the event, an illustration of how Russia has blurred the lines in this and other foreign policy initiatives — leaving some observers wondering whether it’s the government or the private sector that is in the lead.

To muddy the waters still further, the funding for the beauty contest, and the new radio station, has come from a Russian mining company called Lobaye Invest, which received exploration rights for gold and diamonds in two western areas of CAR this summer.

But Lobaye Invest is also indirectly linked to the Kremlin, as it is reported to be a subsidiary of a larger Russian business group founded by the oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has close ties to President Vladimir Putin.

One of Russia’s richest men, Prigozhin wears many hats. He is believed to be behind the shadowy private military contractor known as Wagner, which has deployed weaponry and mercenaries in support of Russia’s most controversial military interventions in the last few years, including in Ukraine and Syria.

Prigozhin has also been dubbed “Putin’s Chef” by the media because of his lucrative catering contracts with the Kremlin. Earlier this year, Prigozhin was indicted by the US Justice Department on charges of meddling in the 2016 American presidential election through his St. Petersburg-based internet “troll factory,” the Internet Research Agency. That led to him being placed on a US sanctions list.

All this is background noise in CAR. In the local press and on social media, Russia has been receiving glowing reports for the support it has been giving to social and cultural activities in the country.

Building goodwill for Russia

Russia has also been sending a growing number of CAR lawyers, army officers and students to its own institutions for training — much as the US does from countries around the world, with the aim of building both contacts and information sources, as well as a reservoir of goodwill. Similar, Soviet-era initiatives left a legacy of a far flung ‘diaspora’ of Russian speakers worldwide — and Russia is keen to keep this going today as part of its efforts to project influence.

To cap this soft-power offensive, the Russian embassy in Bangui says that plans are underway to build a Russian cultural institute in the next two years.

Moscow has been open about what it is doing in the CAR, said the Russian security advisor Valery Zakharov, in an interview: “There have been lots of rumors. It was important to clarify what is going on in the country.”

Moscow has been open about what it is doing in the CAR, said the Russian security advisor Valery Zakharov, in an interview: “There have been lots of rumors. It was important to clarify what is going on in the country.”

“Russia is not just about arms,” he said. “Security can come only when we change people’s lives. We must create positive ground.”

“Russia is not just about arms,” he said. “Security can come only when we change people’s lives. We must create positive ground.” 

Valery Zakharov, Russian security advisor

This Russian surge into CAR all started last year — with an arms deal. For the past five years, the country has been under an arms embargo and sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council — aimed at ending CAR’s six-year old civil war. But in December 2017, Moscow won an exemption from the UN, allowing it to provide Central African government forces with a wide range of Russian-made weapons, ranging from rifles to anti-tank guns.

France, ironically, helped pave the way for Russia to move in to its backyard. Amid tensions between the two states over the conflict in Syria, Moscow vetoed a plan by Paris to give CAR a consignment of confiscated weapons. But the French miscalculated when they asked President Faustin-Archange Touadéra to meet with the Russian foreign minister to get the veto lifted, giving Moscow the chance to fill the gap.

In the year since, there has been a steady influx of Russians arriving to teach CAR troops to use the new weapons — in addition to a European Union-run program with the same troops. These Russian trainers almost certainly have a military background, judging by their style and demeanour, but Moscow calls them “civilian instructors.” According to Zakharov, there are now around 250 of these Russian trainers in the country — though Western diplomats believe the real figure is higher. And some of these Russians are embedded with CAR troops who are being deployed to some provinces outside the capital.

Contractors from Russian company Sewa Security Services protect the CAR President

There is also a contingent of Russian military contractors helping to guard CAR President Touadéra — an ostentatious sight when they appear with him at official events. Their military-style fatigues bear the insignia of “Sewa Security Services,” another Russian private military company, or PMC.

There have also been persistent, but still unconfirmed, reports from diplomats, UN officials and non-governmental agencies working in Bangui that some of the Russians in the country are mercenaries linked to the shadowy Wagner group.

This past July, three Russian journalists were killed in mysterious circumstances 60 miles north-east of Bangui, while on an assignment to investigate reports of Wagner’s presence — and what happened remains unclear.

Zakharov, the security advisor, rejected reports that the Wagner group is involved in CAR, insisting that the training personnel “are reservists and former soldiers.”

According to the independent Russian news site, Zakharov has worked with Prigozhin, the suspected backer of the Wagner mercenaries, in Russia. He had years of experience with an Interior Ministry surveillance unit in St. Petersburg, and later served in a similar role with customs enforcement, the website reports.

Although he denied links to Prigozhin when interviewed by Coda, Zakharov confirmed he has worked with the intelligence services in Russia’s restive north Caucasus and suggested his experience there is useful in CAR. “I am a specialist in the management of religious conflicts — I worked in Chechnya and Dagestan. And the situation here, after all, is somehow similar to what we experienced in Russia in the 1990s.”

In recent months, two more Russians have been making their presence felt at meetings with CAR officials and ceremonies for newly-trained Central African troops, working alongside Zakharov. Unlike the majority of the Russians sent here, who have a military-look, these two wear sharp suits and neatly groomed beards.

They are Vasily Alexandrov and Stanislav Skopylatov, whose job titles are “Assistant in public relations” and “Assistant in politics to the national security advisor” respectively, according to their business cards. Like Zakharov, and many other Russians working in CAR, they are both from St. Petersburg — the home city of Prigozhin and Putin himself.

The more polished of the two, Skopylatov previously worked for Alexander Khodosok, a member of Putin’s United Russia party in the St. Petersburg legislaturе and a former senior military figure. Not long before moving to Bangui, Skopylatov was reportedly named in an investigation into corruption in a defense ministry real estate deal.

Alexandrov is active on ultra-nationalist internet forums dedicated to Russian militarism, martial arts and far-right politics. In one post, he is photographed wearing a T-shirt printed with the words “Orthodoxy or Death.” In another post, he wears a tee from Pravy Bereg (Right Side), a St. Petersburg clothing brand popular with neo-Nazis and soccer hooligans whose slogan is “Against Tolerance.” In yet another post, he is with an instructor explaining the workings of a Kalashnikov rifle.

What unites the two is previous experience in public relations work. Alexandrov was a promoter for a discount card firm called “Go! Petersburg.” Skopylatov owned Image Service, a PR outfit that he shuttered in November. They came to fill a void in the Russian communications strategy, fitting in much better among Bangui’s elite, or on the entertainment scene, than their soldierly-fellow citizens.

For President Touadera, all this help from Russia has been timely. Two and half years after he was elected, he has little to show for it. He is struggling to keep his promises of reviving the country’s economy and reestablishing security. One-fifth of the population is displaced or living as refugees outside the country. Armed groups continue to fight for control of mineral deposits, largely unhindered by the 11,000-strong UN peacekeeping force, which is often criticized for its lack of action. France ended it is military mission in the country in 2016, leaving many CAR people feeling abandoned.

“Then we are criticized for seeking other partners. Is that a joke?” 

Thierry Kamach, the CAR Environment Minister

“Then we are criticized for seeking other partners. Is that a joke?,” said Thierry Kamach, the CAR Environment Minister and also a wealthy businessman, as he downed glasses of fine French wine at “Carré Gourmand”, a restaurant in Bangui popular among expats and wealthy Central Africans. “We are a free country. The Russians are here now, and the people are happy. This is a new era for the Central African Republic.”

Viktor Tokmakov, the First Secretary, said Russia is keen to rekindle old ties in the region. “Russia has had interests in the African continent for a long time. We decided to come back. We want to develop economic exchanges with CAR, and this can only be done with peace and security. Therefore, we’re trying to help in those fields”.

In the streets of Bangui, the general opinion is that Russia is a new, and helpful, development partner. But the value of Russian investments in the country is actually very low. As in other parts of the world where it is extending its influence, the Russian government has to do it on a limited budget.

Private companies such as Sewa Security and Lobaye Invest provide a multiplier effect for Russia, but in line with Kremlin interests given their close ties to the state.

“The political and economic objectives are linked,” argued Thierry Vircoulon, Central Africa analyst for the International Crisis Group (ICG), who has no doubt that Wagner is operating in CAR. “These companies work for the Kremlin’s security firm, Wagner, whose goal is also to make money.”

He points out that in many ways Russia has simply adopted the American approach, of employing PMCs that are closely aligned with the government — such as Blackwater, which had many key contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan. “After all, it is the United States that has implemented this model,” said Vircoulon.

There’s no interest in such details in the local media, which has increasingly adopted a pro-Russian tilt. Even relatively small initiatives — such as a donation of sports equipment to a school, or a trampoline to a childcare facility — receive extensive coverage.

Axis of influence: Russian diplomat Viktor Tokmakov at a completion ceremony for Russian-trained CAR troops with President Faustin-Archange Touadéra (far right) as one of his Russian bodyguards keeps watch

There have also been reports that some local journalists have taken Russian money to write supportive articles. “Here, the press has to work with incentives. If anyone wants reporting on his activities, it often requires some kind of payment for the journalist”, said Yannick Nalimo, a civil society member, who regularly feeds local blogs and newspapers. “There is no advertising in the Central African media, so journalists need to survive.”

At the same time, a virulent press campaign has targeted the UN peacekeeping mission, France, and some foreign journalists who have been accused of seeking to destabilize the country.

ICG analyst Vircoulon says it is not all going to plan for Russia. They may have miscalculated “the complexity of the country,” he said. “At the moment, they’re not making money in the Central African Republic. They need a peace deal to access the rebel-controlled diamond areas. If it does not work, they might just give up.”

There have been some signs of a Western pushback, with the UN Security Council refusing to approve Russia’s plans for a second delivery of arms to CAR. Russia responded by trying to stall the renewal of the mandate of the UN peacekeeping mission, before abstaining when it was finally approved. Nonetheless, the West still seems to be on the back foot, unable to compete with Russia’s energy.

Recent French efforts to play diplomatic catch-up have had little success. Likewise the European Union, which doesn’t provide any weapons as part of its training program. Africa as a whole has never been high on the strategic agenda of the US — compared to other parts of the world — and it has come as a surprise to see the Russians stepping in to places like CAR so energetically.

America has also been caught off guard by Russian peace initiatives elsewhere in the region — including in Sudan. So far, they have been unsuccessful there, but it is not giving up. And at the same time it is increasingly active in Angola, Eritrea and other African states.

Putin has already shown he is prepared to take long-term bets as part of his wider global push to re-assert Russian power. Some he may win, some he may lose. And in the game of chess that the Central African Republic has become Moscow is ahead. It may not be checkmate, but it has more pieces on the board and in better positions.

Support for Patricia Huon’s reporting was provided by the International Women’s Media Foundation.