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#Russian businessman gave #USCongress a message that proved difficult to swallow

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The Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, also known as "Putin's Chef", for having catering contracts with the Kremlin, has written an open letter to the US congressmen and senators who are to consider two resolutions personally against him. This is an unusual step, on the part of a figure who does not normally participate in public policy. What message is the Kremlin trying to convey and why it is important – asks Louis Auge?

The accusations against Prigozhin

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On June 11, a resolution (H.Res.996) was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives calling for new sanctions against Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman with connections to the Kremlin. On June, 16th Senator Republican Marco Rubio together with his fellow democrat Chris Coons introduced to the Senate a similar resolution (S.Res.624). The document says that "Yevgeniy Prigozhin is a Russian national who has maintained close personal ties with President Vladimir Putin since the early 2000s" and he "is the patron and funder of the Wagner Group, also known as the Private Military Company (PMC) Wagner, a Russian mercenary organization staffed by current and former military and intelligence officers, and the Internet Research Agency (IRA), an organization engaged in online influence operations.

Prigozhina has been accused of participating in operations in Ukraine, Africa and the Middle East, and of interfering in the American elections”.

The document sent to the Senate, in addition to calling for tougher sanctions and listing the regions where Prigozhin is acting against the interests of the United States, calls for a special strategy to counter his activity:

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"The President, in addition to maintaining sanctions on Yevgeniy Prigozhin, his affiliated entities, and the Wagner Group, should work with Congress to develop and execute a strategy drawing on the multiple instruments of United States national power... ...to counter the malignant influence and activities of Prigozhin, the entities affiliated to him, and the Wagner Group, should work with Congress to develop and execute a strategy drawing on the multiple instruments of United States national power...”

The Wagner Group and other alleged entities with ties to the Russian businessman are frequent subjects of world news. Yevgeny Prigozhin is suspected of helping the Libyan rebel general Khalifa Haftar. On 16 June, the head of the public relations department of the AFRICOM Nicole Kirschmann stated that 2,000 Wagner Group mercenaries were operating in Libya. (https://www.libyaobserver.ly/news/us-africa-command-2000-russian-wagner-mercenaries-fighting-haftar-libya).

At the same time, Mr. Prigozhin according to the Times newspaper, is trying to bring to power in Libya Haftar's rival Saif Gaddafi, son of the deposed Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.  (https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/russia-grooms-gaddafis-son-to-rule-in-libya-fbq27krsx ). However, in the US, Prigozhin and his trolls from IRA are subjected in the election meddling in 2016 and even in fomenting racial tensions in American society.

Message from the Russians

On 22 June, an "Open Letter to the US Congress", signed by Prigozhin himself, was published on the Internet. The Russian is trying to rhetorically refute the charges against him. What targets did a person close to Vladimir Putin choose to criticize the United States?

First, he is criticizing the very foundations of American statehood. "The basis of the American nation is that in the 17th century the first settlers came to North America, destroyed the native inhabitants and created their own state," notes Prigozhin.

Secondly, he emphasizes that the U.S. itself in its foreign policy does not pay attention to the interests of other countries: "Presently the national interests of the United States are based on destroying all dissent and spreading its influence around the world. America annihilates everything that does not meet the national interests of the United States. In total, the United States launched 41 wars in which millions of people were killed. It includes the unceremonious and unjustifiable use of nuclear weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The key national interest of the United States is the destruction of foreign cultures and the enslavement of other peoples".

Third, he notes that the U.S. itself interferes in the affairs of other countries and has the largest army in the world, much of which is located outside the U.S.: "In order to destroy the national values of other countries, including their customs and culture, the United States regularly interferes in political processes and elections around the world, shamelessly opening the doors of embassies and presidential offices, creating lawlessness and rewriting laws for themselves to push their interests," - Prigozhin writes.

"U.S. military presence overseas is many times larger than foreign military missions from any other country in the world and numbers about 300,000 people", the Russian businessman claims.

Finally, according to him, there is no need to divide the U.S. population at all. It is already fragmented.

"Despite the fact that the United States is the richest country in the world, the colored population or the majority of Americans live no better than the common residents of the Russian hinterland," says Putin's Chief.

Weak spots

Yevgeniy Prigozhin points to the weaknesses of modern American society and American statehood. Indeed, the difference in income between black and white Americans is shocking. Other countries are increasingly dissatisfied with unilateral U.S. actions. In Iraq, the U.S. military has already been asked to leave. The U.S. under the Trump administration in the White House has quarreled with its allies in Europe and Asia, refusing to pursue a multilateralism in politics.

However, this is only the tip of the iceberg. The U.S. foreign policy is based on the principle of American exclusivity, where the U.S. can do anything, conduct operations anywhere in the world, without the permission of the UN, based only on domestic counter-terrorism legislation. Drone strikes in the Middle East and Africa have become the Americans' favorite weapon since the time of Barack Obama.

Structural Racism remains an integral feature of American society, whether Democrats or Republicans in power. The Black Lives Matter movement emerged after Ferguson in 2014, when the US was governed by a black president, but there is no sign that the lives of black people really have become more important to the police.

Commenting on Prigozhin's statements, it is easy to move aside, and that is what American politicians mostly do. Hence the statements that the Russians were “fomented racial tensions” (https://bylinetimes.com/2020/06/11/how-the-kremlin-tries-to-play-us-protests/) or that the Russians somehow helped to elect Trump.

In fact, if they are trying to do that, they are using the already existing problems in the United States. It is not the Russians' fault that now even in wealthy Minneapolis the median black family income was $36,000 – only just more than half the $83,000 a typical white family in the city.

It's the same in foreign policy. Russians, Chinese, Iranians and others benefit from the failures of the United States. If the U.S. and European NATO countries had not overthrown Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, opening up the prospect of a civil war, Libya would not have had any Wagner mercenaries - there would simply be no job for them.

It is hardly possible to call Yevgeniy Prigozhin a friend of the US. He and others like him are happy to use criticism of the United States to undermine the position of Americans in the competition of great powers. However, such people do an invaluable service to the Americans themselves. Like opposition parties in democratic societies in their criticism of the ruling parties, opponents of the United States in their criticism of the American positions inside the country and on the world stage help to discover the vulnerable points of the American state system.

The United States will either draw conclusions from this criticism and begin to change, or demonstrate rigidity, linking internal and external misunderstandings with the intrigue of its enemies in the best traditions of totalitarian powers. The latter strategy still prevails in the U.S., where Trump supporters attribute racial protests exclusively to the plans of George Soros, and Democrats are described as China's puppets. Democrats respond to them by constantly linking Trump to Russia. However, all this only adds points to the US critics such as Prigozhin.

EU

Week ahead: The state we’re in

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The big set piece of this week will be European Commission President von der Leyen’s ‘State of the EU’ (SOTEU) address to the European Parliament in Strasbourg. It’s a conceit borrowed from the US, when the President of the United States addresses Congress at the start of each year laying out his (and it has always been a he to date) plans for the year ahead. 

I am always amazed by American self-confidence and almost indestructible belief that America is the greatest nation on earth. While thinking you’re just great must be an enjoyable state of mind, the parlous state of the US on so many levels at the moment makes me think that the excessively critical eye Europeans cast on their lot may be a healthier perspective. Still, sometimes it would be nice if we could acknowledge the many pros of the EU and be a bit more ‘European and proud’.

It’s hard to gauge how much interest SOTEU exerts outside those most engaged in the EU’s activities. As a rule Europeans, other than a small group of the most devout, don’t go around bumming about how just bloomin’ great the EU is, or generally being enthused about its direction. While we might have mused on the counterfactual, the UK has provided every EU citizen with a very stark look of “what if?” 

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Looking at where the world, the EU looks like it is in a healthier state than most - this also has a literal meaning this year, we are probably the most vaccinated continent on earth, there is an ambitious plan to turbo charge our economy out of its pandemic slump and the continent has stuck its chin out and decided to do nothing short of lead the world on tackling climate change. I personally feel a great surge of hope from the fact that we appear to have collectively decided enough is enough with those within the EU who want to backslide on democratic values and the rule of law. 

Several proposals will be coming from the Commission this week: Vestager will be presenting the plan for ‘Europe’s Digital Decade’; Borrell will lay out the EU’s plans for links with the Indo-Pacific region; Jourova will outline the EU’s plan on protecting journalists; and Schinas will present the EU’s package on health emergency response and preparedness. 

It is, of course, a plenary session of the Parliament. Other than SOTEU, the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan and the EU’s relations with the Taliban government will be debated; media freedom and the rule of law in Poland, the European Health Union, the EU Blue Card for highly skilled migrants and LGBTIQ rights are all up for discussion.

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Week ahead: Forewarned is forearmed

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Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič will present the Commission’s second annual strategic foresight report on Wednesday (8 September). The report comes a week ahead of the annual ‘State of the EU’ address by the Commission president. The initiative is part of an effort to ensure that the EU is resilient in the face of challenges, but also able to prepare itself by embedding foresight into all aspects of policy making. The 2021 Report will look at structural global megatrends towards 2050 that are set to affect the EU, and will identify areas where the EU could boost its global leadership. 

On Tuesday (7 September) Commissioner Hahn will hold a press conference on the adoption of the Green Bonds Framework, the EUGBS (the European Green Bond Standard) aims to be a “robust tool to demonstrate that they are funding legitimate green projects aligned with the EU taxonomy”.

Parliament

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Europe fit for the Digital Age Executive Vice President and Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager will meet (6 September) with the chairs of five committees (INGE, ITRE, IMCO, LIBE, AIDA) in the parliament for an exchange of views on the digital agenda. 

The Women’s Rights Committee and the delegation for relations with Afghanistan will meet to discuss the situation of women and girls’ rights.

The Special Committee on Beating Cancer will meet on Thursday (9 September) will meet to discuss the exchange of health data and the digitization in cancer prevention and care, as well as an update on the implementation of the EU’s chemicals strategy for sustainability in the context of cancer prevention.

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The Subcommittee on Security and Defence will discuss the situation in Afghanistan, as well as a study on ‘EU preparedness and responses to Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) threats’ and Sven Mikser MEP (S&D, EE) draft report on ‘Challenges and prospects for multilateral Weapons of Mass Destruction arms control and disarmament regimes’. 

Court

European Union Court of Justice will give its opinion on the recovery of €2.7 billion from the UK for its failure to put in place a risk-based approach to customs control, despite repeated warnings from OLAF, the EU’s independent anti-fraud office. The failure to address this issue also meant that EU manufacturers had to compete with undervalued goods coming into the EU via the EU. OLAF’s figure covers the years 2011-2017. Other important judgements are expected in the field of Asylum (C-18/20, C-768/19).

Council

Agriculture and fisheries ministers will be meeting informally from 5-7. Economic and Finance ministers will have an informal meeting by video conference on 6 September, and will have another informal meeting on 10-11. As usual the Eurogroup will be meet ahead of the inclusive meeting on 10. 

ECB

The European Central Bank will have its regular monthly meeting on Thursday, with inflation now exceeding 2% target, all eyes will be fixed on what the ECB will do next.

Tunisia

EU High Representative Josep Borrell will visit Tunisia on Friday (10 September). In July the Tunisian President Kais Saied dismissed the Prime Minister and suspected the parliament invoking emergency powers in the face of demonstrations over economic hardship and a rise in Covid-19 cases, The EU has called on Tunisia to respect its constitution and the rule of law. 

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EU

Back to School, EU Reporter’s look at the week ahead

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To those of you who managed to get away for a restorative summer break, well done, you’ll need it. The next term is going to be (another) busy one. 

Much legislation has started its legislative journey through the EU’s complex decision-making machine, with lots of very meaty proposals on their way to being sliced, diced and spiced, and finally thrown into the conciliation committee frying pan to be presented at five am by a bleary-eyed politician as a hard-won Presidency triumph. Among the biggies are the Digital and the ‘Fit for 55’ climate proposals. The climate proposals promise to be particularly bruising given that the ‘Climate Law’ fixing carbon commitments has already been agreed; finding a final balance between the proposals is going to require horse-trading of a hitherto unknown scale.

The Brussels beltway was quite dormant in August until the catastrophic events in Afghanistan brought 20 years of Western intervention to a less than triumphant panic-filled and inglorious exit. The ‘West’ lies in a tattered mess, with trust at an all-time low. The von der Leyen Commission presented itself as a “geopolitical” one, Biden’s administration declared ‘America’s back!’ - and yet here we are. One thing I have learned is that things are never so bad that they can’t become any worse. The triumph of the Taliban and the brutal reminder that ISIS haven’t gone away will give succour to those who support their ideals elsewhere. It’s not a pretty picture, but Europe and the wider ‘West’ need to have the courage of its better self that defends rights, democracy, the rule of law and prosperity both at home and abroad. 

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Next week Foreign and Defence ministers will gather for informal councils to discuss the aftermath of recent events. The grave instability closer to home in North Africa, Lebanon and Belarus - among others - and, of course, Afghanistan.

The defence ministers will be meeting to discuss the EU’s Strategic Compass, the aim is to have a complete document by November; recent events have shown that the EU needs to take more responsibility and concerted action in security and defence.

On Tuesday (31 August) there will be an extraordinary meeting of Justice and Home Affairs ministers who will gather to discuss how they will deal with the inevitable movement of people from Afghanistan, resettlement in the EU, and also supporting those neighbouring countries who have already taken in millions of refugees who will need more financial support.

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Rule of law

It’s hard to be a beacon for the rule of law abroad, if your own constituent parts are happily tearing up norms, which brings me to Poland and Hungary where the state of stasis has remained during the summer.

Von der Leyen rebuffed MEPs and legal experts in a five-page letter that listed how Hungary had breached six of eight rule-of-law principles linked to the spending of the EU budget and should therefore trigger the recently minted ‘rule of law conditionality’ mechanism to prevent the misuse of funds. Von der Leyen wrote that MEPs had not provided enough evidence of the breaches and that the Commission “has not been properly called upon to act".

Poland’s day of reckoning on 16 August was a non-event, with further prevarication from Commission HQ. One can’t help but think there is someone in the Commission legal service who has the Douglas Adams quote framed on their wall: “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”

The Commission kicked the can down the road as they “read and analyse” Poland’s response. Vice President Jourova will visit Poland on Monday (30 August). The noises coming from Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro are not encouraging, recently tweeting that the EU is engaged in a “hybrid war” against the EU. 

In the meantime, Slovenia continues to stall on nominating prosecutors to the European Public Prosecutor's Office, with Slovenian Prime Minister Jansa blocking nominations.

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