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How Russia’s security services try to recruit opposition activists

For Russian law enforcement, informal connections with the opposition can be anything from genuine information-gathering to ticking boxes in their monthly reports.

Maria Klimova
15 January 2019

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Illustration: Vlad Milushkin for OVD-Info. All rights reserved.

For Russia’s security services, establishing informal contact with opposition activists has become an essential part of investigative work over the past few years. I surveyed several Russian activists to find out more about how people can avoid forced cooperation and what to do if you cross paths with the Centre for Combating Extremism or Federal Security Service.

Pros and cons

Ivan Smirnov, a left-wing opposition activist, weighed up all the pros and cons before he agreed to meet with “Alexey” from the Moscow branch of Russia’s Centre for Combating Extremism (often referred to as “Centre E”). On the telephone, the Centre E officer – whom Smirnov had already seen twice – promised to tell the activist something important.

Smirnov arrived at the cafe where Alexey was waiting for him, wondering what exactly the agent was planning to tell him. Alexey bought Smirnov a coffee, and then proposed have dinner and a drink together. Ivan thanked him but said he wasn’t hungry, and Alexey ordered a meal and a cocktail.

The conversation with the Centre E officer was quite trivial, Smirnov remembers. Alexey thought out loud about the political situation in the country, shared his family problems. “My son is finishing 11th grade, he doesn’t want to study and is messing about,” he complained. “I tell him: you need to prepare for university admission, otherwise you’ll go to the army. We understand that a normal person doesn’t want to go to the army, right?”

After several failed attempts at starting a relaxed conversation with Smirnov, Alexey got down to business: he proposed that Smirnov start cooperating with the Moscow police. According to Smirnov, he was supposed to give his “expert opinion” on political processes in the country. During the conversation, the agent even made a vague reference to financial compensation in exchange for regular meetings. Ivan refused the offer.

“Then we can do this badly,” the Centre E officer warned him.

“How’s that?”

“There will be hockey on all fronts,” Alexey said ambiguously, without explaining what he meant.

“Hockey on all fronts”

The police first contacted Ivan Smirnov (whose name has been changed here) in 2003, prior to a public protest that had been approved by the authorities. Smirnov was one of the organisers of the public protest, and when Russian Interior Ministry officials suggested that they meet to discuss security issues at the action, he wasn’t put off. “I was young and inexperienced back then. I thought that perhaps it was worth meeting them,” he explains. “I invited two of the other official organisers to the meeting, so that there was no precedent of individual interaction with these people.”

The Interior Ministry officials were unpleasantly surprised when Smirnov arrived at the meeting with other people. The conversation was vague and lasted no longer than 40 minutes. The police officers thanked the organisers and left.

A few months later, one of the police officers present at the meeting, Alexey, contacted Smirnov. He suggested meeting informally to discuss something. “I agreed. I thought that he could tell me something important. And I went after telling my comrades about the meeting.”

On this first occasion, the two men met in a cafe. The police officer asked the activist in a friendly and unforced manner about his plans for the future and life in general, as well as sharing his thoughts about communism and the problems of globalisation. “Then he asked me suddenly whether I would inform him if there was some kind of threat to the country. I promised him that if people’s lives were in danger, and that I knew about it, then I would definitely tell him,” the activist remembers.

After a few more months passed, the Centre E agent rang Smirnov again and proposed “making their meetings regular”. Smirnov replied that he wasn’t interested in that.

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Illustration: Vlad Milushkin for OVD-Info. All rights reserved.

The activist last saw Alexey in 2010 in a cafe. On that occasion, Smirnov recorded their conversation on a dictaphone hidden in his coat pocket. He recalls that he was slightly surprised when Alexey began vaguely threatening him and talking about “hockey on all fronts”. “Through all these conversations, excluding the last, where there were elements of light blackmail, the officers behaved well towards me,” the activist says. After this meeting, their interaction ceased. Despite the officer’s threats, Smirnov faced no problems at work or elsewhere.

Now Ivan believes that he shouldn’t have meet Alexey at all. “Actually, there was nothing of any use in those conversations. There was just an attempt to establish contact built on mutual trust.” If this kind of situation came up again, Smirnov says, he would refuse to talk to the officers without an official summons.

“I didn’t notice any real interest from the siloviki [law enforcement officials] in those conversations. They were carrying out some kind of formal assignment, a task,” Smirnov says. “But what seemed funny to me back then is the fact that the officer tried to order more expensive drinks and food, and then took the receipts with him. Apparently, to claim expenses.”

“Everything can end badly”

People who “defend the constitutional order”, as Russian law enforcement is known, have got the wrong idea about opposition activists, lawyer Sergey Badamshin believes. And this mistake is what gives rise to attempts at total control, as well as provocations – such as the one organised in the “New Greatness” case. [In this 2018 case, FSB officers provided funds, stimulus, direction and a meeting space for a minor political group in the Moscow area, before declaring it an extremist organisation and detaining its members.]

“Police search activities aren’t necessary for monitoring, as is the case in Russia, but only if there are grounds to believe that a crime has been committed recently or in the past. To simply go around carrying out investigative activities is unacceptable,” Badamshin explains.

In October 2018, unknown persons hung a banner reading “FSB to court” outside the Tver Federal Security Service building. After noticing the banner, FSB agents removed it, and the media hardly reported the incident.

Two weeks later, Tver resident Roman Akimov, who had participated in city protest on several occasions, exited a supermarket and headed towards his car. He placed his shopping in the boot and got in. At that moment, an unknown man came up and knocked on the window.

“Roman, hi! Do you remember me? We studied together.”

Akimov didn’t recognise him. “At first I thought maybe this was one of my coursemates. Perhaps I just don’t recognise him,” he says. Surprised, Akimov opened the door and suggested the man join him in the car. The man got into the car and introduced himself as Alexander, an officer in the local FSB. He didn’t show his ID to Roman. “You’re not going to do anything stupid?” Alexander asked. When Akimov said he wouldn’t, Alexander waved to another officer, standing on the street near Akimov’s car, who then left. “It seems he brought backup just in case,” Akimov suggests.

“Tell me, what motivated you to hang that banner next to the FSB?” Alexander asked. According to Akimov, the FSB officer was completely convinced of the activist’s role in the action. Alexander admitted that he’d already made inquiries about Roman and knew that he hadn’t served in the army due to problems with his spine. The FSB officer asked Roman about his political views and protests organised by supporters of Alexey Navalny.

“I didn’t think it was necessary to answer his questions. He offered to leave his phone number, he said that we can talk again. He was very interested in who I speak to, which groups I’m in,” Akimov says. He remembers that the FSB agent was initially polite, but after Akimov refused to work with him, he began to make threats. “I said that I don’t see the reason to talk to him, I didn’t need that at all. If they want to speak to me officially, then let them send me a summons,” the activist explains.

“Then everything can end badly,” Alexander warned him. He threatened that if Roman continued his political activities, then law enforcement could detain him later and then, perhaps, the activist would face a criminal investigation. After this, Alexander said goodbye and left.

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Illustration: Vlad Milushkin for OVD-Info. All rights reserved

.Ivan Zhdanov, legal director for Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, says that he’s heard stories about how Russian law enforcement tries to make informal contact with activists before. According to Zhdanov, this practice is far from new – security services have been trying to find people “open for cooperation” for many years.

“They approach you, propose a discussion in an informal environment. They have different ways of convincing and pressuring [you]: either via promises to help you up the career ladder or attempts to frighten you with problems at work,” Zhdanov says. “It’s not worth going to these informal meetings. First, they tend to deceive people, and second, cooperating with them is shameful.”

Activists should make these informal offers from the FSB and Centre E public, says Zhdanov. “I wouldn’t say that they have an order from the very top to recruit activists and our volunteers. No, this is a private initiative, including by regional investigators who believe that they can manipulate people and receive information this way.”

“Trivial problems”

Russian federal law permits investigators to use citizens “in the preparation or conduct of investigative actions, and, if they wish, their assistance to agencies can be kept confidential.” Anyone over 18 can become an informer, regardless of their nationality, sex, property, work or social position. That said, there are several limitations: investigators cannot recruit deputies, judges, prosecutors, lawyers or priests.

FSB agents tried to recruit Bogdan Titov (name changed on request) through his older brother, a businessman from the Moscow area. “We were organising an animal rights protest in 2009 in Moscow. I was detained there and then put under arrest for a few days. Back then, law enforcement viewed these kind of actions with far more suspicion than neo-Nazi actions,” Titov says. “To them, animal rights actions seemed like something incredibly pro-western and unclear. They easily found out where I was from, but first sent an officer to talk to my brother.”

In order not to cause further distress for his family, Titov agreed to meet the agent in a cafe, and then visit the local FSB office. According to Bogdan, he didn’t have much of a choice – his interlocutor instantly let him know that if he refused, then his brother would have serious problems.

“They forced me to explain what animal rights activists do, to tell them with whom we organised the action and so on,” Titov says. “It seems they got these questions from the FSB in Moscow. I told them some nonsense about how I met the other guys at the action and don’t know what their names are. They noted this down. I thought at the time: oho, how simple this all is, you can tell them nonsense and that suits them fine.” Later, Bogdan filled out a survey form on the agents’ request, writing down his place and date of birth, place of work, study and home address.

Even a few years after the action, FSB agents would regularly, if “by accident”, meet Titov outside his home, the hospital or supermarket. The agents would ask him about what was new in his life, work and interests. “Understand, I don’t give a ****, you’re just in our database now,” one of the FSB agents told him. In order to avoid these meetings, Titov moved to live in Moscow full time and stopped visiting his hometown.

Russian law enforcement agents can often make “trivial problems” for activists who refuse to work with them, says Ivan Zhdanov. “But most of the time we’re talking about unpleasant thing, which, again, can be made public.”

Maxim Ivanov (who requested his name be changed after “everything had quietened down”) said that his meeting with FSB agents took place at university, in the office of the security team, where he was invited without any explanation. Maxim, a fourth-year student, didn’t remember the surname of the man who questioned him – though the agent did show him an ID card, he only managed to look at the photograph.

In autumn 2018, Maxim, a resident of a large Siberian town, had given out leaflets at a protest action ahead of elections to the city council – one of the people he gave them to turned out to be a member of the local FSB.

According to Ivanov, the security service officers spoke to him calmly and politely. “As if I was a hooligan who’d broken a window, and they were having a preventative conversation with him.” Maxim’s interlocutor questioned him widely about his interests, friends in anarchist groups and opposition protests, and then suggested he become an informer for the security services. The agent handed him a document, in which Maxim’s codename was stated. This contract forbid Maxim from uncovering information that he passed on to law enforcement. The student signed the document. “At that moment I didn’t see any other option to just get out of there,” he explains. “I hadn’t warned any of my friends and I didn’t know what those people could do with me. That’s why it was a move I was forced to make.”

Ivanov agreed with the FSB agents about a meeting. The day before the meeting, one of the FSB agents wrote to Maxim on Telegram to congratulate him on his birthday. Despite his promises, Ivanov didn’t attend the meeting, and it seemed that the agents forgot about him. “After that, I’ve been trying not to attract attention from the media,” he says.

According to Sergey Badamshin, any activist who receives a proposal to cooperate, should listen to the agents and understand what refusing to speak to them might entail. “If this kind of situation has arisen, then it’s important to listen more and talk less. Secondly, it’s important to delay and take legal advice. These offers can be anything, from a provocation to a prank.”

For lawyer Dmitry Dinze, there’s only reason an activist should meet FSB agents informally: to find out whether there are circumstances that could influence a future criminal case.

“I recommend going on these meetings and recording the whole conversation, in order to have future evidence that there were provocations from law enforcement. Of course you should do that,” the lawyer explains. According to Dinze, Centre E officers are unlikely to create real problems for activists – they don’t have the powers. FSB agents are a different matter, as they can put pressure on people.

According to Dinze, recruitment is an important part of an investigators’ work. “This is another ‘stick’ in the stick system of an investigator [“stick system” refers to a quota system of judging performance]. If they have few agents, then they can’t write normal memos about what they’ve found out from their sources. There might not be a real informer, they could be made up. The more informers an investigator recruits, the better for him. That’s why they sometimes make up informers, and sometimes they have real ones.”

This article was originally published on OVD-Info. We translate and publish it with their permission here.


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