While conducting a joint investigation, The Insider, Bellingcat and Der Spiegel identified the person who manages Prigozhin's affairs in Africa. The man with the call sign “Mazai”, who has been hiding his name and face, may be linked to torturing civilians and the murder of the Russian journalists in the CAR.
Prigozhin and the PMC
“Mazai decides everything.” The African Campaign
Who is Konstantin Pikalov
Prigozhin and the PMC
Recidivist criminal Evgeny Prigozhin, tried for theft, fraud, and involving minors in criminal activities, is now known as “Putin's chef” (he organizes dinners at the Kremlin), the sponsor of the Wagner PMC and the owner of the largest troll factory. His source of income is the exclusive access to government catering contracts (including those for the Defense Ministry and schools), and despite the constant scandals with mass poisonings (which even drew the attention of the FSB military counterintelligence) those contracts get constantly renewed and used to feed a huge army of trolls, mercenaries and provocateurs. Prigozhin's mercenaries, which are commonly referred to as the Wagner PMC (although “Wagner”, aka Dmitry Utkin, is just one of a bunch of mercenary commanders), are involved in many operations abroad, in many cases (such as the invasion of Ukraine) under the direct command of the GRU.
Prigozhin's rise began in 2013-2014, which is when he became actively involved in international affairs, both through trolls and through mercenaries. Judging by his cell phone billings (which were found in the correspondence hacked by Anonymous International) at that time he had already been in contact with the highest-ranking officials and the military. Those included Dmitry Peskov, Sergei Shoigu, Putin's foreign policy aide Yuri Ushakov, presidential administration officials Anton Vaino and Igor Diveikin (clearly not people with whom he could discuss his catering service), and Putin's bodyguard Alexei Dumin (who later turned governor of the Tula Region and is now building a Tula analog of the Patriot Park with Prigozhin).
There is ample evidence that Prigozhin's PMCs are de facto controlled by the GRU: they use the military aircraft and bases of the Ministry of Defense in various countries and directly report to the GRU officers when performing their tasks. In many telephone intercepts from the beginning of the Ukrainian war, one can hear Wagner (Utkin) reporting to GRU officer Ivannikov (the same one who had been responsible for supplying the Buk anti-aircraft missile system to Donbass). We also managed to find instances when Utkin and Ivannikov flew together (for example, on June 5, 2015, they flew together to Moscow, with only 10 passengers onboard, of which 4 were associated with the “Wagnerites”).
After Fontanka found Utkin sitting at the table at a reception in honor of the “Heroes of the Fatherland” in the Kremlin in 2016 in the footage from the Kremlin shown by the First Channel, it was impossible to deny the PMC's connection with the authorities. In addition to Utkin, his PMC comrade-in-arms Andrei Troshev was seen at the reception wearing a “Hero of Russia” star. Utkin and Troshev can be seen in the same picture with Putin (taken at the same reception judging by the clothes).
Earlier, Utkin and Troshev were seen traveling together with Prigozhin's security staff. Moreover, for an unclear purpose, Prigozhin created several Prigozhin clones - at Prigozhin's request several people officially changed their names and surnames to match Utkin's. One of them, Alexei Karnaukhov, having changed his name to Utkin, headed Prigozhin's Concord for a while. Why Prigozhin needed that is anyone's guess, the only thing that's clear is that his connection to Wagner is obvious.
“Mazai decides everything.” The African Campaign
In recent years, Prigozhin has become very active in Africa. Proyekt, a publication which conducted a large-scale investigation of his activities on the African continent, estimates that Prigozhin's mercenaries, spin doctors or mining company geologists are already present in 20 African countries, with another 19 countries on the waiting list. Some countries (such as Mozambique or the Central African Republic) have welcomed a full-fledged military and economic presence; others, such as the DRC, Zimbabwe and Madagascar, have received teams of spin doctors, with bodyguards assigned to them. According to Proyekt, Colonel Utkin was scheduled to fly to Rwanda in 2019, along with Valery Zakharov, an adviser to the president of the CAR. It was reported that this trip was derailed at the last minute. By that time, Utkin had already been overexposed, both because of his photos with Putin that had surfaced and because of the U.S. sanctions. However, at the same time, another colonel with links to Prigozhin arrived in Africa. The spin doctors working in Africa knew him by the name Konstantin and the call sign “Mazai”.
Mazai first showed himself in Madagascar during the 2018 presidential election. At that time, Prigozhin's men tried to promote the founder and pastor of the Church of the Apocalypse, André Mailhol. Mailhol himself said that the Russians brought him several suitcases full of cash and gave him bodyguards. Prigozhin's spin doctors (Andrei Kramar, Vladimir Boyarishchev and Roman Pozdnyakov) wrote his speeches and paid for campaign posters and television ads. Mazai became Mailhol's bodyguard.
“Mazai” aka Konstantin (right)
“Mazai” (in the car on the left) during the pastor's campaign
They lost the election, of course. But even before the election day, when it became clear that Andry Rajoelina would win the election, the Prigozhin team switched to him. Mazai began guarding Rajoelina.
That same year, 2018, Mazai was also in the CAR. He arrived there in early July, just three weeks before Orkhan Dzhemal, Alexander Rastorguev, and Kirill Radchenko were killed.
According to the documents that came into our possession, Mazai was no ordinary bodyguard. For example, despite the fact that it was Valery Zakharov who was formally a Russian military adviser to the president of the Central African Republic, all really important issues were up to Mazai. The Prigozhin team working in Africa, calling itself Project Continent (information security and social media management specialists and spin doctors), received instructions on ideological and military issues from Mazai. According to the reviewed e-mails, Mazai was the only one of the team working in CAR who spoke to Prigozhin on equal terms.
One of the e-mails forwarded to Mazai by the Russian military contains a scan of a letter from the Bambari authorities to the commander of the Russian armed forces stationed in the CAR. In this letter, dated May 13, 2019, the authorities demanded an urgent and secret meeting to discuss “the very delicate situation in Bambari.” In particular, it supposedly referred to the economic and social problems of the local population caused by the presence of the mercenaries.
It is not clear from the letter whether the letter referred to the Russian PMCs or the fighters from the Islamist group Seleka, but shortly before that the UN demanded that the CAR authorities pay attention to the reports on torture of local civilians in Bambari by the Russian military or mercenaries, including the case when one of the residents had his finger cut off during interrogation.
Mazai did his best to make it difficult to identify him. Even Prizhin's staff did not know his real name, and he always wore dark glasses during his rare public appearances. However, having studied Valery Zakharov's phone billings (available to Bellingcat), we managed to find out that two phone numbers he had been calling belonged to the military security company Convoy with a hefty charter capital of 100 million rubles and only three employees. The owner of Convoy is Konstantin Pikalov, who also owns a Cossack society of the same name.
A reverse search using mobile apps which store information about how a person is tagged in users' phone contacts left no doubt - Konstantin Pikalov and Mazai are the same person.
It is also interesting that someone tagged him as “Ragozin's bodyguard” - it is possible that the referenced person is Dmitry Rogozin.
Judging by the photo in Pikalov's passport file, he looks a lot like Mazai from the African photo:
Who is Konstantin Pikalov
Born on July 23, 1968, Pikalov served in the armed forces, in a unit near St. Petersburg. Judging by open sources, this military unit supported a testing ground of the Ministry of Defense. It is likely that he served in Xxyt and participated in combat operations as a squad leader, at least that's what his 2013 resume says:
After his retirement, Pikalov stayed in the Priozersky district and founded a private detective agency. In 2016, he even ran for election on behalf of Just Russia, but the CEC refused to register him. Pikalov has also been blacklisted by the Central Bank's for suspected money laundering. In 2014 and 2017, Pikalov flew towards the Ukrainian border, sometimes with Wagnerian fighters, such as Vadim Gusev (not to be confused with Utkin!) and Nikolai Khamatkoev.
Pikalov's foreign adventures did not begin in Africa, but in the Balkans, where he flew to September 27, 2014, to participate in an event sponsored by Konstantin Malofeyev, organized by dressed-up Cossacks in Banja Luka (the capital of Republika Srpska) to support the nationalist Milorad Dodik in elections. Technically, the “Cossacks” arrived to attend a “folklore festival” and were supposed to perform dance numbers; in reality, the 144 militants served as a safety net in case the elections went wrong. But Dodik won - and all the militants immediately returned to Moscow, along with Malofeyev. Cautious Pikalov did not appear in any photos taken in Banja Luka, but his Convoy partner posted photos from there to his VKontakte account.
Employees of Prigozhin's African project, with whom we were able to speak, claimed that Pikalov had fought in both Donbass and Syria, and while this statement sounds plausible, it is difficult to independently confirm. Prigozhin's employees also confirmed that they (including Mazai) had been aware of the arrival of the Russian journalists in the CAR and that those journalists had been followed. However, they do not know the circumstances of the journalists' murder.
In June 2015, Pikalov flew to Kazakhstan for several weeks and also made several trips to Finland and Estonia. Curiously, neither his being on the Central Bank's blacklist for suspected money laundering, nor his participation in combat operations abroad prevented Pikalov from getting a Schengen tourist visa at the Finnish consulate on three occasions (his current visa is valid until March 16, 2021). However, while Prigozhin himself is still under European sanctions, his companies continue to do business in Europe. Although, judging by his correspondence, Prigozhin's life did become more complicated after the American sanctions. A German company representative wrote to him:
“It will now be difficult to have business relations with Concord. Please pay have your bills paid on behalf of some other company.”