Russia debates letting Snowden in from the cold

But would a Kremlin offer of asylum to the former NSA contractor be cynical or altruistic?

Sergei Grits/AP
A supporter of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden holds a poster reading "Edward! Russia is your second motherland!" outside Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow Friday. Mr. Snowden is believed to remain at the airport's transit zone.

Former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who Russian officials say is spending his sixth day hiding somewhere in Moscow's cavernous Sheremetyevo airport, has still not been heard from or even spotted by journalists who've been eagerly combing the transit zone for a glimpse of him.

But his presence has not passed unnoticed in Moscow political circles, where a growing number of voices are suggesting that he should be brought in from the cold and offered asylum in Russia.

While a skeptic may perceive a cynical streak behind the unfolding public discussion – a desire to exploit Mr. Snowden's situation for propaganda points against the US – it might also be argued that some of the Western concepts being introduced into mainstream Russia political discourse, pretty much for the first time, may be hard to put back in the box later.

One prominent theme is the jarring notion that the old cold war paradigm – the US-led "free world" versus the Soviet "evil empire" – is being been stood on its head, and the US now looks like a ponderous, bureaucratic police state, while modern Russia has morphed into a beacon of hope for Western freedom-seekers.

"[Julian] Assange, [Bradley] Manning and Snowden are not spies who sold classified information for money. They acted on their beliefs. They are new dissidents, fighters against the system," the head of the State Duma's international affairs committee, Alexei Pushkov, tweeted Wednesday.

Mr. Pushkov, who excels at skewering Western "double standards," has maintained a steady stream of similar comments on his Twitter feed in recent days.

"The idealist Snowden was apparently convinced it would all turn out like a Hollywood movie: he will expose abuses and democracy will prevail. But life, and the US, are tougher," he tweeted Friday.

A somewhat different tack was taken by the head of the Kremlin's in-house human rights commission, Mikhail Fedotov, who told journalists that Snowden "deserves protection" and should file a request for refuge in Russia.

"If Mr. Snowden files such a request, then it can be considered by the president," Fedotov told the independent Interfax agency on Thursday.

"This situation is utterly clear to me from the point of view of human rights protection: a person, disclosing secrets concealed by special services, if these secrets are a threat to the society, a threat to millions people – which refers to the total surveillance of the Internet – such a person does deserve political asylum in this or that country," Fedotov said.

The official line, expressed by President Vladimir Putin, is that Russia will not hand Snowden over to the US but that he should move on, the sooner the better.

Before he goes, however, Russia's Federation Council, the upper house of parliament, has struck a special committee and invited him in to testify about the impact of NSA spying on Russian citizens.

Sen. Ruslan Gattarov, head of the Federation Council's working group to investigate Snowden's claims, says his main concern is not to investigate the NSA.

He insists the committee's key interest is to explore the alleged abuse-of-trust by giant Internet companies – such as Google, Yahoo, and Facebook, and others with huge slices of the Russian market – which Snowden's revelations suggest have handed over user data to the NSA.

"We don't want to get involved in secret service conspiracies. Whatever the NSA was doing is not particularly our concern," Mr. Gattarov says.

"We want to know how it happens that big global Internet companies, which operate in Russia, too, find it possible to leak user data to a third party. The public has been assured by these companies that our personal correspondence, our bank accounts, our Internet habits are all perfectly secure. But what we're learning from Mr. Snowden's exposures strongly suggest otherwise."

"So, we want to talk with him. As soon as he settles his status, we invite him to come to the Federation Council and discuss with us any evidence that is relevant to this probe," he adds.

Sergei Markov, a frequent adviser to President Putin, says the growing public debate over what to do about Snowden really is something new, and it puts the Kremlin in a difficult spot.

"Russia really would prefer if Snowden went somewhere else, but it is quite possible that we'd take him in if he asked for asylum here. It would create difficulties with the US, but Russia would lose a lot of credibility if it were to turn him down," Mr. Markov says.

"Of course, Snowden probably doesn't want refuge in Russia. He belongs to international civil society, the so-called 'warriors of freedom,' who probably dislike Russia as much as they do the US. He'd probably see Russian asylum as the total failure of his mission. But in Russian society, there is a real, very healthy discussion going on about this. People are reexamining their beliefs. For example, human rights advocates who normally just criticize the Kremlin are being forced to answer the question: Are you more pro-American, or more pro-human rights?" he says.

"If you're more pro-human rights, it means you should support Snowden even if it means offending the US."

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