Unmarked cars and well-built men: how the Kremlin trailed Alexei Navalny
Russian opposition leader under close surveillance since challenging Vladimir Putin in 2017
Alexei Navalny addresses supporters during an unauthorised rally against Vladimir Putin in Moscow on May 5th, 2018. Photograph: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images
As Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most prominent dissident, fought for his life in a Siberian hospital after apparently being poisoned last week, three masked men occupied the chief doctor’s office.
Idling under a portrait of President Vladimir Putin pensively strolling through a field of wheat, the men made small talk but refused to say who they were.
Their awkward dress and shifty demeanour were all too familiar to Navalny’s family and aides, who quickly recognised them as members of the Russian security services.
“It looks really funny – you can tell because they’re these tough-looking, well-built men, and they usually have these manbags,” said Ivan Zhdanov, director of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation.
The pervasive surveillance against Navalny, who was in Siberia making one of his YouTube corruption investigations, indicates how he remains a thorn in the Kremlin’s side after a decade of activism.
Navalny, who has been jailed 13 times for organising protests against Putin, complained to the Financial Times in an interview last year that he and his family were followed around the clock by men he claimed were from Russia’s security services.
“It’s been going on for quite some time, but I’d be lying if I told you it was routine and we don’t pay attention to it. Some assholes are sitting next to you all the time. But you don’t stop living your life,” he said. “Lots of people’s reaction to that would be to shut down and hide ... We enjoy our lives as we can.”
Aides who accompanied Navalny on the Siberia trip and kept watch at the hospital in Omsk said they had long grown used to being followed by unmarked cars and spotting men trying to hide video cameras.
“We know they constantly listen to our phone conversations, we know they put up hidden cameras, we know they take the footage from security cameras everywhere we go,” Zhdanov said. “They interrogated my relatives, everyone I had meetings with – it’s more or less total control.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Monday that surveillance operations were “the prerogative of the secret services” and “cannot and should not be approved” by Putin’s administration.
The surveillance appears to date at least as far back as 2017, when Navalny began travelling across Russia in an attempt to challenge Putin for president.
That year, Ren-TV, a channel whose parent company is reportedly co-owned by close Putin confidant Yuri Kovalchuk, aired a documentary accusing Navalny of receiving secret cash payments from “fugitive oligarchs”. The film used surveillance videos of Navalny on vacation with his family, intercepted phone calls, text messages, and emails, and trailed his employees in cafés.
Dmitry Belousov, a former Ren-TV scriptwriter now seeking asylum in the Netherlands, told the FT he believed the secret services had passed on the footage – known in industry jargon as kompromat, for “compromising materials” – to discredit Navalny and other activists.
Belousov said that Alexei Malkov, Ren-TV’s chief political producer, had previously bragged to him that a “handler” from the FSB, the successor agency to the KGB, supplied him with surveillance materials for Kremlin-commissioned state TV documentaries.
Malkov uploaded the footage to Ren-TV’s servers himself, leaving Belousov to fill in the blanks in the script while reporters chased Navalny’s team on the street for comments.
“He met someone, brought the material, and they were basically the ones making the film,” Belousov said. “Nobody makes those films on their own initiative. Everything is done to order for approval. The Kremlin has a story to tell and the FSB and presidential administration put the show together.”
Malkov ultimately quit the channel in disgust after making the next film in the cycle, which included surveillance of several teenage opposition candidates for city councils in provincial Russia. “The FSB is the political police, it’s conducting political surveillance in Russia,” he said. “They find any kompromat, publish it on TV, and then the police start charging these activists with crimes based on nothing.”
The Kremlin and the FSB did not respond to a request for comment. Ren-TV told independent investigative site Proekt, which first published Belousov’s story, that Malkov did not take instructions from the Kremlin and said its sources “could be all kinds of structures”.
An article in the pro-Kremlin tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets on Saturday cited “sources in the security structures” who said they had followed Navalny throughout the trip as he took selfies with followers in the town centre, rented what they termed a “conspiratorial apartment” and took a dip in the Tom river.
The leak was apparently intended to show that agents could not have poisoned Navalny, claiming they had failed to detect “any superfluous or suspicious contacts”. But the article nevertheless revealed the apparent scale of the surveillance, as officers cross-checked his followers’ credit cards, a sushi delivery order, hotel bookings and followed him in unmarked cars.
Proekt said a senior Kremlin official had shown its reporter Navalny’s test results before they were made public and said they showed he was “definitely not poisoned”.
“The amount of resources they spend on it is remarkable,” Zhdanov said. He said that on one occasion he and Navalny met a fellow activist in a Moscow café and realised that “each of us had our own surveillance team”.
“It was hilarious because there was an enormous number of people around, it was completely blatant. Seven people were within touching distance and more were sitting outside.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020