Russia is consolidating control in the Central African Republic (CAR) after the assassination of Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin.
As reported by Wood Central last month, Wagner-linked companies run gold, timber and beer brewing operations in CAR for helping the former French colony fight off a rebel insurgency in recent years.
Wood Central understands that Wagner forces have profited from timber sourced from concessions and its 186,596 hectares of the world’s rarest forests, sold through African forest markets.
Various reports have connected the concessions and timber sold through concessions to Wagner equipment purchased for military operations.
It comes as CNN now reports that Russian nationals are using a residence called Maison Russe, or the Russian House, to centralise African operations, which includes thousands of fighters and a vast array of business holdings.
Here, Russia is widening operations while continuing to exert its influence, and the message Moscow wants to project is “business as usual.”
“The Maison Russe is the nerve centre of all of Wagner’s activities in the Central African Republic,” Nathalia Dukhan, a senior investigator at The Sentry, a US nonprofit that has monitored Wagner nationwide, told CNN.
The centre is home to a diverse range of operations linked to Wagner’s business endeavours – the group uses it to sell its timber, gold and diamonds and entertain essential VIPs.
It runs events designed to “spread Russian culture while promoting a pro-Moscow perception of international relations,” Dukhan said.
All Eyes on Wagner said that the Russian House is “incorporated as a business in Bangui” but has no links to the Rossotrudnichestvo agency – 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 said, “and this includes timber.”
According to an All Eyes on Wagner report earlier this year, Wagner’s forestry business yields considerable profit.
“Taking the hypothesis that 30% of the concession is exploited, the revenue potential could reach 890 million dollars on international markets, which is significant.”
“Even if such numbers should be refined and some inputs are missing, wood exports could be a profitable business for the Wagner/Prigozhin galaxy and a way to bring back cash to a sanctioned Russia.”
According to the European Council, Dimitry Syty operated Maison Russe, a former Wagner deputy who played “a leading role” for Wagner.
Local media now reports that Mr Syty, sanctioned by the EU and the US “for serious human rights abuses,” has been replaced by a new figure known as “Nafisa”, who CNN confirmed to be Anfisa Alexandrovna Kiryanova.
Local media report that a new director has taken over and has referred to her only as “Nafisa.” However, CNN has confirmed that her identity is Anfisa Alexandrovna Kiryanova.
Speaking about Wagner in the region, 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.
Asked who oversaw the Maison Russe, Kiryanova said Mr Syty was still “responsible for the head of the whole mission, and he runs some other directions.”
However, a diplomatic official who spoke to CNN anonymously said that Mr Syty and Wagner’s security advisor to CAR President Touadera, Vitali Perfilev, have returned to Moscow and signed new contracts with the Russian Ministry of Defence.
Despite the failed Wagner mutiny, little has changed for the CAR’s relationship with Russia, according to Fidèle Gouandjika, a senior adviser to President Touadera.
Tall and greying, he wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the message “Je suis Wagner” – “I am Wagner,” in French – claiming it was given to him by Prigozhin himself.
“He was my friend in front of all central African people,” he said of the late mercenary boss.
“The Russians gave us peace,” he said, adding: “We are very glad that Mr. Yevgeny Prigozhin, in little time, one year, pushed out the rebels, and our country is occupied by our army 100%.”
Gouandjika claimed that Putin spoke to Touadera recently and reassured him, “‘Everything will be like yesterday. It will be better tomorrow and after tomorrow. So we have no regrets.'”
Kremlin-linked conflict timber continues to infiltrate global markets
In July, Wood Central reported that conflict timber connected to Russia’s war with Ukraine is infiltrating global timber markets.
The ICIJ’s Deforestation Inc. identified new routes through China, Turkey and other countries, adding to the traders using Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan previously reported by the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP).
Reporters used customs data to trace cases of Russian wood bypassing bans and entering the EU, identifying upticks in EU timber imports from several countries after sanctions were imposed on Russia.
The group allege that more than 100,000 tonnes of lumber have entered Germany, France and other EU countries as part of one of Russia’s biggest illegal timber scandals.
In Russia, the state similarly owns – and therefore benefits financially from them – the country’s forests. It temporarily grants rights to companies and individuals for commercial logging.
Several oligarchs with close ties to the Kremlin, including Wagner mercenaries, own Russia’s largest timber companies and hold a forested area as large as France, according to Earthsight, a British environmental nonprofit.
In messages obtained by the ICIJ partners, they reveal traders with connections to Russia offering to sell timber from Turkey, Kazakhstan and China.
Some masked timber origins with false certifications, while others explicitly outlined how they manoeuvred around sanctions.
“We have our own processing company and can easily process the imported [Russian] larch and export it to you,” reads one leaked message from a Chinese trader.