Thursday, 23 Mar 2023

They Sneaked Into a Derelict Arms Plant: Instagrammers or Spies?

The three espionage suspects — two Russians and one Ukrainian — were hardly discreet.

They arrived at the derelict Albanian weapons factory in a bright orange Chevrolet Camaro in broad daylight. After they clambered over a back wall in full view of nearby houses, one of them was spotted by military guards and asked what he was doing.

The man — a 24-year-old Russian, Mikhail Zorin, who had arrived in Albania by bicycle two weeks earlier, purportedly to take artsy photographs of abandoned buildings — pulled out a canister of self-defense spray and squirted two guards.

Captured nonetheless, he was taken to a police station for questioning and declared himself a Russian agent, either out of honesty or a dishonest urge to tell interrogators what he thought they wanted to hear.

“If he is a spy, he is a very stupid one,” Mr. Zorin’s lawyer, Isuf Shehu, said in an interview in Tirana, the Albanian capital, scoffing at an espionage investigation into the trio as a “theater of the absurd, like Kafka’s ‘The Trial.’”

Albania’s prime minister, Edi Rama, in an interview, said he was baffled that Mr. Zorin and his two companions would want to spy on a crumbling, long-defunct factory with no secrets to steal. But, he added, “this is not about phobias but about all the real stuff happening,” since Russia invaded Ukraine. (He used an earthier term for “stuff.”)

Albania, a member of NATO, and other countries in the alliance, he said, had no choice but to take any hint of Russian skulduggery seriously. “This is the situation imposed by Russia,” he added.

An abiding distrust of Russia and its people in Poland, the Baltic States and other nations in Eastern Europe with painful, direct experience of Moscow’s methods used to be viewed as paranoia by countries distant from Russia’s border. But after the invasion of Ukraine a year ago, it has now become the norm across much of Europe.

“Every Russian is now a Boris and Natasha from ‘Rocky and Bullwinkle,’” lamented Nina Khrushcheva, a Russian-born American scholar at the New School in New York, referring to the two Russian villains in the American cartoon show.

She described how she had recently been pulled aside for questioning four times at an airport in Portugal after showing her American passport, which identifies her place of birth as Moscow.

When she asked, “Do I really look that suspicious?” a woman checking her replied: “Yes, you are Russian.”

As well as inflicting a “horrible war” on Ukraine, Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, Ms. Khrushcheva said, has “fed his own nationals as cannon fodder into a war of attitudes and perceptions that Russia has already lost for years to come no matter how the real war ends.”

Whether the espionage investigation set off by the three visitors to an idle arms factory in the remote Albanian town of Gramsh is a product of paranoia or a counterespionage coup against devious Moscow agents depends on whom you ask.

None of the three have been charged, but all have been held in jail since August, when they were grabbed for sneaking into the long-shuttered weapons factory, part of a network of once secret but now mostly abandoned military sites in the central Albanian mountains dating back to the Communist era of Enver Hoxha, the country’s despotic and deeply paranoid leader until his death in 1985.

A court in the Albanian city of Elbasan last Friday extended their pretrial detention for a further three months.

All three have an online presence as fans of urban exploration, or “urbex,” a pastime that revolves around visiting and taking pictures of defunct factories, former military bases, Cold War missile silos, decommissioned nuclear plants and other mostly creepy places.

Spiro Lasi, a construction worker whose house looks out over the Gramsh factory, said he was stunned that the trespassers were being held on suspicion of spying. “It makes no sense to me at all,” he said, noting that the factory had stopped work decades ago and, though still guarded by the Albanian military, holds nothing but ruins.

Aldi Kozaria, an Albanian journalist who broke the story of the arrests, said that he was initially skeptical, too, but that he now thinks the three were definitely up to no good. “In the beginning I thought it was all a joke, but if you connect dots the case starts to makes sense,” he said.

One important dot, he says, is the fact that shortly after the arrests, Moscow sent an urgent request to Albania for the extradition of one of the two detained Russians, Svetlana Timofeyeva, 33, a prominent urbex photographer with more than 250,000 followers on Instagram, where she uses the name Lana Sator.

The extradition request claimed that Ms. Timofeyeva was wanted in Russia in connection with a 2018 criminal case involving illegal entry into an underground military site in Chekhov, a town south of Moscow that housed a Cold War nuclear command center.

The Albanian prosecutor leading the investigation, Kreshnik Ajazi, says he thinks it fishy that Moscow moved so quickly to dust off an old case to justify a demand that Ms. Timofeyeva be sent back to Russia. Extradition, he said, “is one of the ways they rescue people.”

But Ms. Timofeyeva, according to her lawyer, Fatmir Lushi, has no desire to go back to Russia and is fighting extradition because she “left a clear record on social media against Putin and the war in Ukraine.” Mr. Lushi discounted the possibility that Russia’s request was a ruse to save an agent. On the contrary, he said, Ms. Timofeyeva faced punishment if sent to Russia and would be treated “very inhumanely.”

At an extradition hearing last month in Elbasan, Ms. Timofeyeva, led by guards into a cage in the courtroom in handcuffs, used a question from the judge about her marital status to make clear her opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. She said she had split up with her partner “because we did not share views on the war,” which he supports.

Maria Passer, a longtime member of Russia’s tight-knit urbex community, said that she had known Ms. Timofeyeva for nine years, traveled with her extensively, including to Albania, on trips to photograph derelict buildings, and had “never seen anything that seemed suspicious.”

Ms. Timofeyeva’s fellow Russian on the ill-fated visit to Gramsh, Mr. Zorin, is less well known in the urbex world but he also has an Instagram account, on which, before his arrest, he posted photographs of decrepit factories — and cats. After Russia invaded Ukraine last February, he posted a Ukrainian flag.

A chemistry student in the Czech Republic, Mr. Zorin made no effort to keep his trip to Albania secret, reporting about his journey there by bicycle from neighboring Montenegro on Telegram.

He was joined in Albania by Ms. Timofeyeva and a third urbex enthusiast, Fedir Alpatov of Ukraine, the owner of the orange sports car used to drive to Gramsh.

Mr. Rama, the prime minister, described the affair as a “mystery.” The Gramsh site, ringed by rusty barbed wire, clogged with weeds and dotted with concrete bunkers built under Mr. Hoxha, has not, according to the prime minister, produced weapons for many years. “I don’t think there is anything to spy on there,” he said.

When it was still working decades ago, the factory produced an Albanian version of Soviet-designed Kalashnikov rifles, not a weapon whose technology Moscow would need to snoop on.

The prosecutor, Mr. Ajazi, still thinks he has a case, though a final decision on whether to file formal charges of espionage will, he said, depend on forensic analysis of the contents of two drones, cellphones, video recorders, a laptop and USB devices seized from the suspects.

So far, only one drone has been fully analyzed. It was found to contain images of Albanian security facilities, hydroelectric dams and other places that, according to the prosecutor, “are not things that ordinary bloggers would film.” Mr. Shehu, the lawyer, described the images as typical urbex pictures.

Also disputed is the nature of spray that Mr. Zorin used against the guards. The prosecutor identified it as a “nerve agent,” but the lawyer said that it was an off-the-shelf product of the kind often carried by travelers in unfamiliar, remote places.

The biggest mystery is why, according to his lawyer, Mr. Zorin told police officers on the day of his arrest that he was working for Russian intelligence. The transcript of his questioning is secret and the prosecutor declined to comment on whether Mr. Zorin really had made an apparent confession, saying only that “if this were true, it would be strong evidence.”

Publicly released evidence of espionage, however, is mostly circumstantial. “They acted like normal visitors but they were not going to normal places. Tourists in Albania go to the beach, not to a military base,” the prosecutor said.

Ms. Passer, the friend of Ms Timofeyeva, said that she could understand why “somebody who has never heard of urban explorers would be suspicious” when Russians armed with cameras and drones got caught sneaking into a military site. But she blamed the war in Ukraine for turning her old friend’s passion for crumbling buildings into a spy case.

“If she had been caught two years ago at the same factory she would have been released: Russia had not invaded Ukraine then and Russian people did not seem so suspicious,” she said. “It was just a bad moment.”

Fatjona Mejdini contributed reporting from Tirana, Albania, and Alina Lobzina from London.

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