Murder, alcohol and prostitutes: Wagner convicts pardoned by Putin return to terrorise home towns
Violent criminals who served with the notorious Russian militia in Ukraine are terrorising the communities they return to
Sat 22 Apr 2023 08.25 EDT
He strode up and down the central street of Tskhinvali on Monday, like he did most days, occasionally stopping to chat with passersby.
Locals knew the man, Soslan Valiyev, 38, as an idiosyncratic but popular fixture in Tskhinvali, the tiny capital of the Russian-backed breakaway region of South Ossetia in Georgia.
Tsugri, as Valiyev was affectionately nicknamed by everyone in town, had a developmental disability. “As long as I could remember Tskhinvali, Tsugri was always there, greeting cars as they entered the city with his big smile,” said Alik Puhati, a journalist and South Ossetian native.
“He was loved by everyone in our tight community. A welcomed guest at weddings and dinners, people really took care of and protected him,” Puhati added.
The shock was therefore palpable in Tskhinvali when the news broke out that Tsugri had been killed that evening. A harrowing video published on Telegram channels showed a man chasing and kicking Tsugri moments before he reportedly stabbed him to death.
“Everyone is in shock,” Puhati said, “people ask themselves, ‘How could this have happened?’”
Local authorities announced in the early hours of Tuesday that they had arrested a man who was suspected of murdering Tsugri. The man, who was identified by state-run media, was Georgiy Siukayev, a convicted murderer who was recruited from jail last autumn by the Wagner paramilitary organisation to fight in Ukraine.
Over the course of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Wagner has recruited tens of thousands of inmates, including murderers and domestic abusers, to fight some of the war’s bloodiest battles.
Many are believed to have died in Ukraine, but those who survived the six months in the group’s ranks have earned presidential pardons and are now returning to their home towns. According to the notorious Wagner head Evgeniy Prigozhin, more than 5,000 former criminals have already been freed. One of those is Siukayev who recently returned to his home town of Tskhinvali.
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Their releases have stoked fears that the men will go on to commit further crimes, worries that will only grow following a string of violent crimes perpetrated by former Wagner soldiers, including the murder of Tsugri.
Commenting on the case in a statement, Prigozhin claimed that Siukayev was defending bystanders who were being harassed.
But Anatoly Bibilov, the former South Ossetian president, dismissed Prigozhin’s statement, calling Tsugri a “kind and harmless guy whom everyone, with rare exceptions, loved as their own”.
Tsugri’s murder wasn’t the first allegedly committed by a pardoned prisoner turned Wagner fighter.
At the end of March, Yulia Buiskich, an 85-year-old pensioner, was killed at home in the sleepy town of Novyj Burets in the Kirov region, 600 miles east of Moscow.
The perpetrator, 28-year-old Ivan Rossomakhin, was already a repeat offender when he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for murder in 2020. He too was recruited by Prigozhin and recently returned to his home town after fighting in Ukraine.
News of Rossomakhin’s return deeply unsettled Novyj Burets’ modest community of a few hundred people and led to a town hall meeting, which was filmed by a local TV channel.
During the meeting, police chief Vadim Varankin promised that the “problematic troublemaker” Rossomakhin would be taken away from the town on 28 March.
But a day later, on 29 March, Rossomakhin entered the wooden house of Buiskich, where he is believed to have killed her with an axe.
“The state and personally Putin and Prigozhin are to blame for Yulia’s death and should answer for it,” said a close relative of Buiskich, speaking under condition of anonymity.
“They released a sick bastard into society.”
The relative described Buiskich as a “very active and cheerful person, full of life”.
“At 85, she was so fond of travelling, she often travelled hundreds of miles to visit her friends and family,” the relative said.
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“She had so much joy in her life, enough for another 10 years.”
In one picture shared with the Observer, a smiling Buiskich wearing a flowery dress is holding a large bowl of strawberries. Another image showed Buiskich proudly standing next to her granddaughter.
The relative, as well as other family members contacted by the Observer, said they feared state reprisals for speaking out against Wagner.
Earlier this year, Vladimir Putin signed legislation making it a criminal offence to publicly criticise Wagner fighters or publish negative reports about them. Soon after, a Russian activist who revealed details of the burials of Wagner mercenaries killed in Ukraine fled the country.
And Prigozhin, a longtime ally of Putin, has vouched to help former convicts who have served out their contracts in Ukraine if they get in trouble with law enforcement.
“The police should treat you with respect. If they are being unreasonable … I myself will call and sort things out with the governors and so on. We will find a solution,” Pirgozhin recently told a group of former prisoners.
The backing of Prigozhin, one of Russia’s most notorious figures, will add to a growing sense of impunity felt by prisoners returning home, said a representative of Jailed Russia, a prisoners’ rights NGO.
One of those former criminals is Alexey Savichev, who returned in March to his home town of Voronezh, a city in south-west Russia.
Savichev, 49, a convicted murderer recruited by Wagner last September, fought for six months in Ukraine, first in the battle for the town of Soledar and, after its capture, in Bakhmut.
Earlier this week, in an interview with this paper, he admitted to killing and torturing “dozens” of Ukrainian prisoners of war.
Back in Voronezh, Savichev said he quickly spent the full sum he earned while with Wagner – roughly one million rubles (£10,000) – on “alcohol and prostitutes”.
“I was drinking basically non-stop, I finally had freedom and a lot of money,” he said.
Savichev described to the Observer how police in Voronezh would occasionally detain him for disorderly conduct late at night.
But, according to his account, he was released every time after showing the police some of the medals he received for fighting in Ukraine, including a presidential award for “bravery” seen by the Observer.
“The cops treated me somewhat like a hero,” Savichev boasted, adding that police officers would invite him for tea to hear tales about his time with Wagner. !!!
“It felt like I could get away with anything.”