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‘Putin’s chef’ says he will collect debt owed by comatose Navalny

Russia's President Vladimir Putin. (Alexei Nikolsky/Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/TASS/Abaca Press/TNS)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Kremlin-connected Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin says he intends to collect a debt from comatose Aleksei Navalny and his shuttered Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) if the opposition activist survives what European doctors say was a poisoning.

Prigozhin, who has been the subject of hard-hitting FBK corruption investigations, announced on August 25 that he bought up the debt owed by Navalny and his company relating to a lawsuit settlement won by a Moscow school-catering company.

Navalny is currently in an induced coma in a German hospital after a suspected poisoning in Tomsk, Siberia, where he had been conducting his latest corruption investigation.

“If Navalny lives, he must answer to the fullest extent of Russian law,” Prigozhin said in a statement issued through Konkord, his catering company.

He said he would make an exception if the 44-year-old Kremlin critic did not survive.

“Of course, if Comrade Navalny gives his soul to God, then personally I do not intend to persecute him in this world. I will postpone this [debt settlement] indefinitely.”

A Moscow court in October ordered Navalny, FBK and the organization’s lawyer, Lyubov Sobol, to pay a total of 87.6 million rubles ($1.15 million) split evenly among them to the catering company, Moscow Schoolchild, for defamation.

Moscow Schoolchild, since renamed Wilmap LLC, had sued the three defendants over an investigative video produced by FBK alleging that the company did not comply with sanitary standards, forged documents, and supplied poor-quality food to kindergartens and schools.

The FBK had also said that the caterer was owned by Prigozhin.

Current Time investigation noted that Prigozhin himself had long denied any affiliation with the catering company. However, the investigation found that half of Moscow Schoolchild was owned by a former policeman who identified himself as the head of security for the Konkord catering service, Prigozhin’s main asset.

The court sided with the plaintiff, ruling that Moscow Schoolchild’s reputation had been damaged by the investigative video and it had lost a contract as a result. As part of the settlement, FBK was also ordered to remove the video and refute the allegations.

Navalny announced in July that the lawsuit –- which he said Prigozhin was behind — had forced him to liquidate the FBK.

“We will move to another legal entity, let Putin and Prigozhin choke on this,” Navalny announced at the time, describing the numerous raids and harassment by authorities that the FBK had encountered in its nine years of existence. “Until the end of Putin’s power, we will have to live with blocked accounts and bailiffs confiscating our property in favor of Putin’s Chef.”

Prigozhin is often referred to by the nickname “Putin’s Chef” because he once personally catered an event for the president and subsequently rose to become a key Kremlin insider.

In February 2018, Prigozhin was indicted in the United States for meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and both he and his companies have been put under sanctions by the Treasury Department.

Navalny said Prigozhin’s attempts to stop his investigations had only backfired. The activist reported last month the number of people making monthly contributions to help fund his investigations had more than doubled from 7,600 to 15,600 following FBK’s demise.

Over the past nine years, FBK has produced dozens of detailed investigations exposing corruption by government officials, executives of state companies, and tycoons close to the Kremlin and President Vladimir Putin. FBK’s 2016 expose on Prigozhin, which discussed his criminal past, has more than 4.3 million views.

Prigozhin’s August 25 statement is his latest attempt at trolling Navalny and his supporters. Shortly after Navalny announced the liquidation of FBK, and the formation of a new legal entity named the Rights Protection Fund, Prigozhin donated 1 million rubles ($13,200) to the FBK.

The anti-corruption organization declined the donation and returned it to Prigozhin.