Snowden Airport Saga Polarizes Russian Human Rights Community

A mob of journalists descended on Sheremetyevo airport Friday for the Snowden press conference. YouTube screenshot.

Journalists descended on Sheremetyevo airport for the Snowden press conference. YouTube screenshot, July 15, 2013.

After spending almost a month unseen in the international transit area of Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport, former NSA contractor Edward Snowden met with representatives of Russian human rights organizations and Russian MP Vyacheslav Nikonov. During his public appearance on June 12, Snowden made a brief statement and took questions from journalists (full audio available here [en and ru]) at what was termed a “G9 meeting.” Snowden criticized his government's secret courts, overarching system of surveillance, and the diplomatic campaign aimed at preventing him from finding political asylum. He also announced his intention to take asylum in any country that could ensure his security and thanked those countries that have offered him assistance:

Even in the face of this historically disproportionate aggression, countries around the world have offered support and asylum. These nations, including Russia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Ecuador have my gratitude and respect for being the first to stand against human rights violations carried out by the powerful rather than the powerless. By refusing to compromise their principles in the face of intimidation, they have earned the respect of the world.

While the Russian government has come out in tacit support of Snowden's asylum rights, Russians themselves are divided on whether he is a genuine whistle-blower or a hypocritical traitor. Snowden's press conference (video clip below) has re-ignited the debate.

In a blog post [ru] for the independent Ekho Moskvy radio-station, journalist and human rights activist Natalia Gulevskaya directed her ire at the Russian human rights activists who met with Snowden, claiming they were state-sponsored and self-centered hypocrites:

Из собравшегося правозащитного бомонда штатных и внештатных агентов Кремля в транзитной зоне аэропорта Шереметьево никого особо не интересуют граждане России, которые погружаются в репрессии, судебные, административные и физические расправы.

None of the human-rights-defending crème de la crème of official and non-official Kremlin agents, who have gathered in the transit zone, hold any interest for the citizens of Russia, who are drowning in repression, in legal, administrative and physical violence.

Political commentator and human rights activist Marina Litvinovich was even more scathing, writing on her blog [ru] that Snowden's meeting was nothing more than a “typical secret service operation” that “decent people and decent human rights organizations refused to take part in.”

Pavel Chikov, head of the the legal defense NGO Agora [ru] and member of the Presidential Council on Human Rights, was also suspicious of Sheremetyevo airport's new-found enthusiasm for helping human rights activists. He tweeted [ru]:

Помнится, в декабре 2011 года аэропорт Шереметьево задерживал и незаконно (суд потом признал) изымал ноутбук у директора Ассоциации ГОЛОС

I remember, in December of 2011 [after the Duma elections] Sheremetyevo Airport arrested and illegally (as determined by a court) seized a laptop from the director of [election monitoring group] GOLOS [ru]

The idea that Snowden's stay in Russia is closely monitored and controlled by the Russian secret services has permeated the discourse to such a degree that when Nikita Batalov, a radio journalist, found [ru] a suspicious door in one of the Sheremetyevo terminals, he automatically assumed this was where Snowden was being held:

И теперь главное! На одной из маленьких дверей в терминале Е бумажка со скотчем с надписью “СПЕЦОБЪЕКТ ФСБ РОССИИ, ВХОД ЗАПРЕЩЕН”

And now for the main bit! One of the small doors in terminal E [where Snowden held his press-conference] is labeled with a scotch-taped piece of paper “RUSSIAN FSB SENSITIVE SITE, NO ENTRY”

Pro-Kremlin activist and blogger Kristina Potupchik thought that the real hypocrisy lay with the human rights groups that had refused to speak up for Snowden. In a blog post entitled “Edward Snowden, Why is the Opposition Keeping Quiet” [ru] Potupchick mockingly wrote,

Почему молчим? Почему не требуем от кровавого режима в срочном порядке без каких-либо условий предоставить убежище герою, рассказавшему миру правду о нарушении прав человека и подвергающемуся за это преследованиям на родине??? Это же ваша тема! А может быть, они молчат потому, что это СОЕДИНЕННЫЕ ШТАТЫ АМЕРИКИ? Или кто назовет иные причины?

Why are [you] keeping quiet? Why aren't [you] demanding the bloody regime to immediately and unconditionally grant asylum to this hero, who has told the whole world about human rights violations and who is being persecuted for this by his homeland??? This is the kind of thing you do! Or maybe, they are quiet because it's the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA [that is doing the persecuting]? Or can anyone offer another reason?

Some bloggers who are usually critical of the Russian government also sided with Snowden in this instance. For example, the Twitter parody account of Russia's former grey cardinal Vladislav Surkov criticized [ru] perceived attempts at intimidation by the Americans:

Интересно, как США отреагируют на потенциальное выдвижение Сноудена в кандидаты на Нобелевскую Премию Мира?… Разбомбят Швецию?

I wonder how the USA will react to the potential nomination of Snowden as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize?… Bomb Sweden?

The writer and blogger Boris Akunin also thought [ru] that if what Snowden uncovered is true, he deserves the support of the Russian opposition, regardless of all the “fuss that our officialdom has started around him.”

We are often accustomed to thinking that civil society is, while not apolitical, primarily above the often dirty business of party politics. Some of those present at Snowden's press conference can be linked to the Russian government, but others, like Tatiana Lokshina of the Human Right's Watch, who wrote an account [en] of the meeting, have consistently criticized the Russian government in the past. A broad refusal of Russian human rights defenders to speak out favor of Snowden could leave them open to charges of hypocrisy, even though they may find it distasteful to help someone who categorizes Russia as “the first to stand against human rights violations.” With the ever-tightening regulation of Russia's NGO sector, its human rights defenders may have to decide which is more important: being consistent on a range of issues, or trying to prevent the Kremlin's from scoring a few PR points.

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