The Surveillance device was likely planted on the breakfast table, possibly inside a flower arrangement, at Moscow's Holiday Inn Hotel. It was either small enough or so well hidden that Carl Bildt, Sweden's Minister for Foreign Affairs, did not notice it. He simply assumed, as do many diplomats who pass through Russia, that the government was spying on him.
Bildt had traveled to Moscow in May of last year for a conference on human rights, and during a break in his schedule, he had breakfast with Alexei Navalny, the leader of the Russian opposition movement. They sat at a table in one of the hotel's dining rooms and talked about opposition politics, about the protest movement, about corruption. Nearly one year later, an audiotape of that conversation was leaked to the Russian tabloids. It contained nothing incriminating. But it served as a handy way for the state-run media to smear Navalny as an agent of foreign influence about as serious an insult as you can get in Putin's Russia.
Surveillance in Moscow, like heavy snow and heavier traffic, is often treated as a fact of life, so Bildt was not surprised when the tape emerged. (A few months later, in early August, Navalny found an audio transmitter built into the baseboards of his office and a tiny video camera pointing directly at his desk from behind a pinhole in the doorjamb.) "You have to assume these things are going on," Bildt told me in September. "What I found to be something of a novelty was that the state would make such things public."
In the year between the tape's creation and its release, there seemed to have been a change in the political calculus of spying. That foreign diplomats in Moscow are bugged may damage Russia's image, but if it meant a chance to embarrass the opposition, the risk was apparently worth it. To Bildt, this reflected a new kind of brazenness in the tactics of Russia's spy agencies: Yes, we are watching you but now we don't care if everybody knows it.
Under Vladimir Putin, who began his third term as Russia's President in May, that message is being hammered home. On Sept. 21, the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, voted on a legal amendment that could make meetings like the one Navalny had with Bildt an act of treason. The amendment was proposed to the Duma by Russia's domestic spy agency, the FSB, which succeeded the KGB after the fall of the Soviet Union. One of its deputy directors, Yuri Gorbunov, argued that the legal definition of treason should go way beyond the crime of passing state secrets to foreign governments. It should incriminate anyone who provides "consultations or other help" that may allow foreigners to harm Russia's "constitutional order" meaning the ruling regime.
After hearing Gorbunov's two-minute speech, all 449 members of the chamber voted in favor of the amendment. By coincidence, that unanimous vote capped off the year since Putin announced his intention to run for a third term as President. It was a fitting capstone. In the course of those 12 months, the Kremlin has demonstrated that Putin's next six years in office will not be marked by compromise or democratization. Instead, the sound of officers banging on the door has again become familiar for Russia's activists, whose homes are now routinely raided, as are the homes of their relatives. New laws have been enacted targeting human-rights groups, journalists and opposition protesters. After a weeklong show trial in August, three members of the performance-art collective Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in prison for performing a crude anti-Putin song in a Moscow cathedral. Although one of their sentences was suspended on appeal, two of the women were sent to serve their terms in Russia's harsh prison colonies, despite the international outcry over their case. That shouldn't be surprising Russia has begun to demonize the West, and particularly the U.S., in ways not seen since the Cold War.
This shift is partially the result of the growing influence of security agents like Gorbunov, who claimed that day in the Duma that "international organizations ... are actively used as a cover for espionage" though he did not give any examples or evidence to support his statement. The Duma took five minutes to pass the final two readings of the amendment on Oct. 24, sending Russia's opposition leaders and rights groups into a panic. "This is the beginning of the end," Andrei Soldatov, an expert on the FSB, wrote on his Facebook page on the day of the vote. The amendment, he points out, would allow the FSB to conduct indefinite surveillance on practically any Russian citizen who comes into contact with a foreigner.
Call it a return to Putin's roots. In the 1980s, as the Soviet Union was fast decaying, Putin served as a low-level KGB agent in East Germany. A decade later, he was plucked from the ranks of the Kremlin bureaucracy to lead the FSB, and he made sure to hold on to his ties in the security services when he was promoted to the post of President. From the start, many of his closest advisers were KGB veterans. But initially the influence of these men was tempered by a powerful clan of Kremlin liberals mostly reformist holdovers from President Boris Yeltsin's administration who at least maintained the promise of reforms, if not their implementation. But ever since last fall, when Putin announced his bid for a third term as President, the reformers have been pushed aside, and the conservatives have come to the fore. Now finding themselves in the embattled opposition, liberals like Alexei Kudrin, who served for over 11 years as Putin's Finance Minister, admit that Russia is heading down a scary road. "The worst scenario has been chosen," Kudrin told me in September, about a year after resigning from government. "The one of repression."