Alexei Navalny showed up to work in Moscow on Monday to discover he was being bugged. He called the police, like many perhaps would, but not before tweeting photos and video of himself and his colleagues taking the Kremlin’s monitoring devices apart.
It’s not hard to figure out why Navalny was bugged. He’s one of Russia’s most influential anti-corruption bloggers and is at the center of a protest movement aimed at toppling the regime of President Vladimir Putin. Since late July, the 36-year-old lawyer has faced possible arrest, trial and up to 10 years in prison for charges Putin’s prosecutors claim stem from an embezzlement scheme, but which Navalny and his supporters claim is an attempt to silence him.
The discovery began when Navalny’s colleagues at the watchdog group Anti-Corruption Fund had just returned from vacation, and “just for a giggle,” inspected his office with a “bug detector,” Navalny blogged. And as a prominent opposition figure, the odds that Navalny was being spied on were pretty good. Using the detector, his team found a device attached to wire hidden inside the wall molding. “Experts, what is this?” he asked his Twitter followers, attaching a photo. The strange device was apparently a microphone.
Video posted to his blog, seen above, shows more wires being pulled from the wall and another device that appears to be a hidden camera. While discovering the devices, Navalny kept tweeting. “In short, official: the Anti-Corruption Fund found listening device,” he tweeted. Navalny’s team called the police, who found not only the microphone but a hidden camera attached to a power source and transmitter. Police reportedly said on video and in Russian that the device was being remotely operated.
“Here it is – the bug of Czech agent [Alexander] Bastrykin,” Navalny tweeted. There’s a reason why Bastrykin is important: He’s the head of Russia’s Investigative Committee (the Russian FBI), and is charging Navalny in the embezzlement case. The charges stem from an alleged theft of half a million dollars from a state-run timber company while Navalny worked as an adviser to the governor of the state of Kirov. Navalny hasn’t been jailed over the charges yet, though he is prohibited from leaving Moscow. His view of Bastrykin is not charitable. In June, Navalny accused the investigative chief of being a corrupt “foreign agent” who threatened an unfriendly journalist.
But regardless of the case’s merits, the timing for it couldn’t be more revealing. For one, Russia is embroiled in the largest opposition movement since the collapse of the Soviet Union, sparked after Putin’s suspicious re-election in December. Social media portals Facebook, Twitter and Russian-language site Vkontakte have been key organizing tools. Blogs hosted at LiveJournal, which is popular in Russia, have helped disseminate anti-Kremlin messages.
The opposition protests have continued, but a pattern of arrests over the summer has attempted to hinder the movement before an expected increase in demonstrations this fall. Nor is Navalny the only activist to face charges. The three members of feminist punk rock band Pussy Riot could face up to three years in prison for hooliganism. The case has drawn international attention (and criticism against the Kremlin) after the band members were arrested following a video mocking Putin during a guerrilla performance inside an Orthodox church.
The Kremlin has also attempted to shutter the opposition with arrests and new laws aimed at curbing demonstrations and internet freedoms. A new internet law requires service providers to install hardware that can block websites. Any website that feature references to drugs, pornography and “extremist ideas” — open to interpretation — can be censored.
Monitoring or no, Navalny is still tweeting and blogging. On Wednesday, a regional court in the state of Vologda pressed Moscow’s prosecutors to charge Navalny with distributing “extremist” flyers. The flyers allege a correlation between utility prices in different areas of Russia with the vote percentage for Putin’s ruling United Russia Party; in effect, using utilities as a means to punish disloyal regions.
“If filthy United Russia members shriek at this sheet of paper as if they are being grilled on a frying pan in hell, it needs to be distributed more widely,” Navalny wrote.