A voluminous espionage case investigated in Tirana, involving 7 suspects from Russia and the Czech Republic, was closed due to lack of evidence. The alarm regarding the suspected individuals’ activities as spies on behalf of a foreign state reached its peak during the NATO troops’ training in 2021. They drew attention due to frequent entries and exits from Albania, suspicious presence in military zones, and contradictory statements about the reasons for their visits to our country. However, the counterintelligence work and the contribution of foreign agencies were in vain, and the case did not go to trial, like what happened with the investigative case of Russian lobbying in Albanian politics, which started explosively but closed after 2 years of commotion.
“Although there were suspicions that foreign nationals entered the Republic of Albania with the intention of obtaining classified information to provide to a foreign power, it was not proven what this information was, whether it had a military character or of any other kind.”
With this sentence, which corresponded to the findings of the Tirana Prosecution, the criminal court closed the case known as the Russian agency in Albania at the end of January 2023.
How did the espionage investigation start?
In May 2021, during the largest military exercise in the Western Balkans as part of the North Atlantic Alliance, “Defender Europe 21,” the indications from the counterterrorism sector in the State Police prompted an investigation by the Tirana Prosecution. During the opening of this exercise on May 4 of that year, Defence Minister Niko Peleshi stated:
“This exercise is a clear message to the peoples of the Balkans. Their only future is full integration into Euro-Atlantic structures. Any hesitation, deviation, or influence beyond this path is simply a waste of time. But this is also a message to those countries and “hostile” and rival forces against our shared values.”
Who are the suspects of espionage?
On the eve of NATO’s largest military exercise in the Balkans, where Albania was listed among the 12 host countries, informants from the secret service and counterterrorism in Albania reported several Russian and Czech citizens as suspects of espionage.
The suspects were Georgii Budanov, Vladislav Cherkasov, Filip Carek, Prokop Voracek, Libor Bartos, Filip Sichinger, and Andrea Maresova. According to the counterterrorism unit, they were suspected of gathering classified information of a military or any other nature with the purpose of providing it to a foreign power to undermine the country’s independence, an act punishable under Article 214 of the Penal Code with imprisonment ranging from three to ten years.
The “phony” diplomat inspected the area where the NATO exercise “Defender 21” would take place.
During the time when military training of NATO troops was taking place in Durrës, Albanian and foreign intelligence agencies reported suspicious movements of several individuals with temporary residence in our country, as well as others who were coming for tourism.
According to the testimony of an anti-terrorism agent, these individuals were not coming for tourism, but to gather information regarding the NATO forces being deployed in Albania for the “Defender 2021” exercise. Supporting this suspicion was also the information that on April 13, 2021, a diplomat from the Russian embassy visited the port of Durrës.
“He met with a manager at the port authority, presenting himself as a trade attaché at the Embassy of Ukraine in Tirana, and expressed interest in the trade exchanges between Ukraine and Albania, particularly in hydrocarbons. It is suspected that he concealed his status as a Russian embassy official in order not to raise suspicions among the individuals he met and to facilitate the acquisition of information about the troops and military equipment disembarking at the port of Durrës as part of the military exercise,” the information in the file reads. However, the diplomat’s name remains a mystery as there has been no confirmation of his identity afterwards.
Suspicious movements are also observed in military areas.
On April 11, 2021, Russian citizen Georgii Budanov entered through the Qafë Thanë border crossing with his vehicle and declared that he was coming for tourism, inspired by the Alps and the south of Albania. The anti-terrorism unit reported that Budanov was seen moving on foot from Orikum to Mount Karaburun, near the Pashaliman military base. When asked about his presence in Orikum, the 54-year-old Russian responded that he was searching for a suitable location to invest in building an alpine resort. From April until May 1, 2021, he freely moved along this trajectory, and when “the cup was full,” he was accompanied and questioned by the regional border directorate in Vlorë.
Georgi Budanov, a Russian citizen suspected of espionage and deported from Albania in 2021.
“I don’t have a higher education, but my profession is construction engineer. I do not use an email address and I don’t have profiles on social networks. I first came to Albania in 1998 and met Sokol Koçiu (*in 1998 Sokol Koçiu was the director of the Vlora Police), with whom I have maintained a friendship up to the present. The purpose of my visit is for business in the tourism field, as I plan to open a tourist agency to bring tourists from Russia and create a direct flight corridor with charters from Russia to Tirana,” stated Budanov.
Following this statement, the authorities issued a deportation order with a three-year deadline for the Russian citizen Georgii Budanov, on suspicion of providing and delivering classified information to a foreign state.
“Faktoje” contacted Mr. Sokol Koçiu, who was mentioned in Budanov’s testimony. Koçiu does not deny his long-standing friendship with the Russian citizen and introduced himself as Budanov’s defence lawyer since 2021 when the authorities decided to deport him from Albania. Koçiu confirmed the 54-year-old Russian’s interest in doing business in Albania and stated that he opposed the deportation order for this reason.
Regarding this moment, Koçiu described that Budanov had stayed at a hotel in Vlora. Later, he was brought to the capital to an apartment where he lived, which was thoroughly searched. Koçiu insisted that he had a conflict with the civilian agents involved in Georgii Budanov’s deportation.
Koçiu explained to Faktoje that after the Border Police issued the order for Budanov’s removal, he appealed the decision and requested to meet his client. However, the police conducting the search of Budanov’s house, car, and two cell phones did not allow Koçiu to meet his client. In this situation, Koçiu told the Director of the Border Police in Tirana and his deputy, who were conducting the checks, that he would address the Russian embassy to resolve the issue.
Immediately after I set out for the Embassy, although the Border Department had not yet issued a decision regarding the appeal against the deportation order, the Russian citizen GEORGII BUDANOV was forcefully and urgently taken, returning him once again to the apartment where he lived, and then forcibly putting him in his car to be deported under the escort of two police vans at the Muriqan Border Crossing Point,” emphasized Sokol Koçiu.
According to information obtained by Faktoje from the TIMS system, Budanov has entered Albania six other times before 2019 and stayed for one to seven days. In one instance, Budanov was not registered when entering Albania, as evidenced by his exit through the Muriqan checkpoint on December 5, 2018, at 6:51 p.m.
Convinced that they were tracking a spy, the Tirana Prosecutor’s Office and the anti-terrorism unit began following the individuals Budanov had met in Albania. No evidence was found. The information that the 54-year-old from Moscow had stayed at a luxury hotel in the capital was not confirmed, despite reports from agents.
“From the analysis of the client list, it does not appear that the citizen Georgi Budanov was accommodated in this hotel,” states the investigative document.
The prosecutor handling the case acknowledges that in the absence of evidence, they sought assistance from INTERPOL, not only for Budanov but also for six other individuals, a Russian compatriot, and five Czech nationals. The anti-terrorism suspicions were that all these individuals served the same purpose, securing secret information on behalf of a foreign state. Among them was also a compatriot, a 51-year-old named Vladislav Cherkasov.
“In letter number 54/31, dated July 27, 2021, Interpol Tirana was requested information on the individuals Vladislav Chercasov, Georgi Budanov, Filip Carek, Prokop Coracek, Libor Bartos, Filip Sichinger, and Andrea Maresova,” the prosecutor’s report states. INTERPOL’s response confirmed that none of the seven were wanted and none had any criminal activity. However, INTERPOL Tirana sought assistance from its partners.
Contradictory testimonies of Cherkasov.
Two days after Budanov’s deportation, the anti-terrorism unit received a signal about another Russian citizen, Vladimir Cherkasov, 49 years old, who has been living in Montenegro for years and travelled to Albania in a camper van. During the first line of control at Muriqan, on the Montenegrin side, he declared that his destination was Durrës for tourism. However, during the second control at the Albanian customs, a drone was found in his camper van, which he claimed he would use for tourism and taking photos on the coast. The Albanian border police did not allow him to keep the drone, and Cherkasov entrusted it to the Montenegrin side to retrieve it upon his return.
The suspected Russian spy, Vladimir Cherkasov:
In subsequent INTERPOL searches, it was discovered that he also owned a hidden-license watercraft. Here is how the 49-year-old Russian described himself to the Albanian authorities:
“I have completed three law faculties, construction engineering, and management. In Russia, I worked as a construction engineer and have a residence permit in the Czech Republic where I worked as a manager. Currently, I work as a lawyer in a construction company in Montenegro. I do not have a profile on social networks, but I have an email and a mobile number from Montenegro, where I have registered WhatsApp and Viber.”
With activities in the cities of Bar and Budva in Montenegro, Cherkasov stated that he lives there with his second wife and their four-year-old son. From his first marriage in Moscow, he mentioned having four children who live in Russia.
“I have had a business in Budva for 10 years, and I am the director of the company DOO ECOLIFE, which deals with solar panels imported from China. I install them myself, and I have a worker named Vadim Majorov from Moscow.”
According to the TIMS system, Cherkasov first entered Albania in 2009, as well as three other times in May 2015, and on May 12 and 17, 2021.
In the prosecutor’s file, the investigation group recounts the Russian’s story regarding the drone blockade at the border by the Albanian police. This statement is strangely different from what he told the border police on the day he entered. “Two months ago, I can’t remember the exact date, I was stopped by the police in Muriqan, who didn’t allow me to travel with the drone. The purpose of the visit was to travel to Rinas to drop off the camper as it was being rented by several foreigners coming to Albania. After I handed over the car, I returned with the motorbike that I had in the vehicle. The car was taken by a Czech couple who returned it to Montenegro.”
Cherkasov adds that he has never been to Durrës, Vlorë, or Berat. However, in his border interview, he is quoted as saying, “I’m going to Durrës to see and take pictures of a piece of land at the address on ‘Vokrri’ Street, Qerret village near the ‘Albania’ facility on behalf of the owner.” But no information was provided to the authorities about the other person, and the investigation group was unable to verify his statements regarding whether he had land for sale in the mentioned area.
“Many suspicions but no evidence,” the prosecution withdraws from the espionage case.
In the prosecutor’s file, both during the investigation and the closure of the case, the prosecution “gives up” after more than two years of searching.
“Throughout the conducted investigation, although there were reasonable suspicions that the mentioned foreign nationals entered the Republic of Albania with the purpose of obtaining secret information and providing it to a foreign power, it was not possible to prove what this information was, whether it had a military character or of any other kind,” says prosecutor Ornela Rrumbullaku.
As part of the secret investigation involving Interpol and the forensic police, the prosecutor lists the actions taken regarding the “visitors” who were deported one after another, as well as the final decision to dismiss the case.
“It was not proven that the foreign nationals had entered with the purpose of obtaining secret information with a military character or of any other kind, and considering Article 329/a in relation to Article 328/1 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, we request the dismissal of the case, as the fact is not considered a criminal offense according to the law,” were the prosecutor’s final words regarding the closure of the case.
Google, GPS, and expertise were not enough.
The investigative file available to Faktoje shows that the investigators managed to seize two mobile devices belonging to the Russian citizen Cherkasov. Despite numerous applications and platforms on these devices (Facebook Messenger, Skype, Viber, Badoo application contacts, Instagram, WhatsApp, Parallel Space, Crello, Turbo VPN, TikTok, Touch VPN, DJI GO, etc.), nothing of interest for the investigation was found.
“The deleted messages could not be recovered. The Turbo VPN application is used to make the internet secure and private,” say the experts.
Meanwhile, based on the device’s history, the experts were able to specify that nine SIM cards were used: three from Russian mobile phone companies, three from Ukrainian companies, one from Croatia, and one from Albania. “Complete communications and emails can be obtained from the respective companies. The phone’s internet connection carries the potential risk of permanent and irreversible data deletion if the user has activated the remote data wipe command,” write the forensic police experts.
The investigators also attempted to shed light on the visit of the five Czech nationals, suspected by the counter-terrorism unit to have come to Albania with the same hostile intentions as the two individuals from Russia. However, the information provided by the local authorities about these individuals did not provide any information regarding involvement in espionage activities, but only mentioned traffic violations.
“Prokop Voracak is known for threats under the influence of intoxicating/psychotropic substances. Filip Carek has a traffic violation. Filip Sichinger has three traffic violations.” As for the other requested information, Czech Republic did not provide any response. They were also seen filming with a drone near the military barracks in Kuçova. (Read the article).
By tracking their movements through GPS in the rented car at Rinas, the Albanian authorities realized that the five Czech nationals had travelled to Tirana, Kruja, Laç, Rrëshen, Bajram Curri, and near the Kuçova military base. However, with this information, they could not secure conclusive evidence that the five Czech individuals were spies. The authorities did not uncover any connection between them and the two Russians, who were also found to have no common link with each other through the investigation.
The espionage case had the same fate as the “Russian lobbying” case.
The case involving the 7 suspects for espionage is the second one to be closed by the prosecution without reaching trial. Earlier, the case of the ‘Russian lobbying’ also suffered the same fate (read the article here), The investigation launched in 2017 regarding approximately 1 million USD paid for lobbying in the United States in favour of the Democratic Party did not yield sufficient evidence. Despite the prosecution collecting evidence for 2 years, including accusations against former leader of the Democratic Party, Lulzim Basha, and two other party officials, it was deemed insufficient. In fact, the prosecution team was rarely divided before the court, leading to an appeal of the decision. However, the second instance also approved the closure of the case for reasons considered by the prosecution as “forgetfulness,” and an appeal to the Supreme Court was not seen as an option.