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In Russia, Snowden exits transit and enters unknown
August 5, 2013, 5:29 am

Snowden arrived in Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport from Hong Kong on June 23 [Getty Images via the Guardian]

Snowden arrived in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport from Hong Kong on June 23 [Getty Images via the Guardian]

Edward Snowden, who was last week granted entry to the Russian Federation after spending five weeks in limbo at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, now has a place to live, at least one job offer, and faces a barrage of female fans wanting to tie the knot with the “world’s most wanted man”.

The former NSA contractor, who leaked to the media critical intelligence on US domestic and foreign surveillance, may have believed he was beginning a calmer period in his life when he left the transit area on temporary asylum.

But for all intents and purposes, he is now a refugee – a man who has been stripped of his US passport and pursued by his county’s authorities.

According to Russian law a refugee is:

A person who is not a citizen of the Russian Federation and who because of well-founded fear of becoming a victim of persecution by reason of race, religion, citizenship, national or social identity or political convention is to be found outside the country of his nationality and is unable or unwilling to avail himself of the protection of this country due to such fear, or having lost his or her nationality and staying beyond the country of his or her former place of residence as a result of similar developments, cannot return to it and does not wish to do so because of such fear.

“Refugee status stipulates Snowden has certain rights, most of them are equal to that of Russian citizens,” Anton Alexeev, a senior lawyer at Yakovlev & Partners, told The BRICS Post.

These rights allow Snowden to find employment or become an entrepreneur, study, receive social benefits and medical help like a Russian citizen can.

But he would have to inform the Federal Migration Service about any prospective changes to his name, whereabouts on Russian territory or if he wants to go abroad.

Snowden cannot be extradited to the country of his former place of residence unless he violates Russian law.

“In accordance with the Federal Law on Refugees, Snowden, as a refugee, can apply for a temporary residence permit that is issued for three years. He can also apply for a permanent resident card that is issued for the period of five years but that is only after he stays in Russia for a year,” Alexeev said.

Persons in Russia who gain a permanent resident card lose their refugee status and eventually are eligible to apply for citizenship.

“Per standard procedure, a foreign national or a person without citizenship can apply for Russian citizenship after staying in Russia for five years with the permanent resident card. But the Federal Law On The Citizenship Of The Russian Federation says this period is shortened if a person has refugee status. So in theory, Snowden has a chance to become a Russian citizen in three years,” Alexeev said.

Straining the ties?

Senator John McCain has been very critical of Russia's role in the Snowden issue [Getty Images]

Senator John McCain has been very critical of Russia’s role in the Snowden issue [Getty Images]

While the consequences of his stay in Russia are likely to rock the international political arena and affect Russian-US relations for the foreseeable future, the question is just how much of an impact his asylum will have.

Political commentators in Russia and in the Western press have spoken considerably of the conflict management skills of the two Presidents Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama, but there is consensus that the Snowden Affair – if one can call it that – has been a litmus test for a much-debated ‘reset’ in Russia-US ties.

Putin seemed to have taken the utmost precautions not to upset the apple cart, with the Kremlin repeatedly stressing that the decision on Snowden’s political asylum is not in the President’s jurisdiction.

“Since the start of the Snowden Affair, Putin has played his cards well and maintained that the fate of Edward Snowden should not in any way impact or reflect Russian foreign policy,” political analyst Peter Lavellle, host of CrossTalk on Russia Today, said.

Putin also stressed that Russia-US relations are more important than an intelligence scandal.

“International relations, in my opinion, are more important than the special services’ hassles,” Putin said in July.

But this has not convinced some US lawmakers who have condemned Moscow for allowing Snowden to fly from Hong Kong, his first refuge, in the first place.

John McCain called Putin a KGB “apparatchik” and suggested Moscow is deliberately impeding the United States’ attempts to apprehend Snowden.

American senators also suggested that the US should boycott the Winter Olympic Games in Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi, as well as find a different venue for the G20 summit in September.

“The Obama administration’s position has been inconsistent and quite frankly immature. In fact, Washington has shown itself uninterested in international law and standard conventions regarding political refugees and asylum seekers,” Lavelle said.

“This should not surprise anyone – Washington wants to keep this story focused on the person of Snowden and not the fact the US has and continues to violate the rights of American citizens,” Lavelle told The BRICS Post.

The power elites

Kirill Koktysh, a political analyst from the Moscow State University for International Relations (MGIMO), thinks Russia’s decision to temporarily accept Snowden’s asylum request will not seriously effect relations with the US.

“Neither Russia nor the United States can cede their positions without losing face, and the elites on both sides clearly understand that. That’s why the reaction will reduce to inevitable ritual statements; the bilateral summit will probably be postponed by a month or two. More serious consequences are unlikely,” Koktysh said.

In fact, the Snowden Affair is likely to reveal dispute between doves and hawks among the US political elite – hardliners vying for influence against those calling for more reasoned approaches with Moscow.

Igor Istomin, a faculty member of the European Studies Institute at MGIMO, believes that Russo-American relations balance between convergence and divergence.

“The situation around Snowden is a minor episode in the relations but might become an epicenter of the game between hardliners and ‘soft-liners’,” Istomin said.

The media pulse

In the meantime, Russian media has been abuzz with speculation about the long-term effects of Snowden’s presence in Moscow.

Vedomosti Daily points to the irony that the US did everything possible for Snowden to stay in Russia.

Openly public threats made by US politicians – John Kerry, John McCain, Charles Schumer, Lindsey Graham – “to extradite Snowden or else …” were intentional, the newspaper argues.

All that rhetoric left Moscow with little choice but to issue a definite “No”, since the West clearly knows that the Kremlin would not stand idle.

Koktysh says that Snowden ultimately benefits because he now has guarantees of physical security and freedom for at least a year.

“The US would be better off if the conflict sinks into oblivion, considering that half of the Americans see Snowden as a defender of their freedom ideals; they also see him as one who has challenged the US government,” Koktysh says.

“Washington doesn’t need public discussion on this topic. Moscow in this situation saves its face and avoids direct confrontation with the US.”

Russians react

But is anyone paying attention in Russia? Not as much as one would expect, say Russian opinion polls, which have shown that a sizable number of people were completely oblivious to Snowden’s fate at Sheremetyevo Airport.

A poll conducted by the Public Opinion Foundation at the end of July revealed that 38 per cent of respondents had never heard of Edward Snowden.

Those few who did follow the “Snowden Saga” wondered what information he had in is possession that pushed the US to so strongly demand his extradition.

Nevertheless, Koktysh says Washington’s continued pursuit of Snowden is logical.

“There is political competition, and in such a delicate situation, the McCarthyism [fear of Communist influence in US society] experience shows that it’s better to take a hard line – especially when real control over the situation has been lost,” Koktysh told The BRICS Post.

In the meantime, Snowden’s whereabouts in Russia – for those who care – has been the talk of the town.

After leaving Sheremetyevo Airport, Russian media reported Snowden had found a place to live (details were not provided for security reasons) and received at least one job offer from Russia’s popular social network VKontakte – an analogue to Facebook.

“Consider this: What if the Snowden story turns from political drama to soap opera. Let’s say he accepts one of the millions of marriage proposals he has now been beseeched with from Russian girls, and settles for being a lover-boy instead of an un-masker, a James Bond prototype,” Koktysh says.

“What happens then to the narrative?”

For a timeline of events since Snowden arrived in Russia, click here.

By Daria Chernyshova in Moscow, Russia for The BRICS Post