Putin as humanitarian: Will Snowden let Russia win the PR war?

LONDON — Less than two months after the groundbreaking revelations of the National Security Agency’s PRISM program, Edward Snowden has become a household name and a polarizing figure in America. Now that he has been granted temporary asylum in Russia, can Snowden remain silent?

The charges levied against Edward Snowden have already triggered worldwide protests. A heroic whistleblower to some, for others Snowden is a national traitor guilty of nothing less than treason. But commentators from all viewpoints can agree on is that Snowden knew what he was doing when he released the documents.

Unlike Chelsea — formerly known as Bradley — Manning, the former US Army private recently found guilty of the largest ever leak of US government files, Edward Snowden knew how to discreetly transfer choice information to the press and was clever enough to leave the country once the job was done. Now, though, as Snowden enjoys his temporary visa in Russia, one wonders whether he is in over his head.

In his July 12 statement to the press, Snowden delivered a bitter critique of the efforts by the US government to reprimand him, claiming that such efforts represent a threat to the “basic rights shared by every person, every nation, to live free from persecution.”

As for Russia, Snowden praised the country for being “the first to stand against human rights violations carried out by the powerful rather than the powerless.” It is no surprise that Snowden would pay tribute to the country processing his asylum request, but it is equally clear that this press conference was as much Putin’s as Snowden’s.

Tanya Lokshina, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Moscow office, generally spends her time critiquing the Kremlin’s disregard for civil liberties. On July 12, however, she found herself sitting next to Snowden as he delivered his statement; a human rights advocate whose presence gave legitimacy to the former NSA agent’s Putin-as-humanitarian narrative.

The 30-year-old fugitive whistleblower’s decision to use his newfound credibility to praise a country with an abysmal human rights record is both naïve and disappointing, and makes one wonder to what extent he is really in control of his situation.

Russia may not have PRISM, but it does have SORM (System for Operational-Investigative Measures), which has allowed the Federal Security Bureau (FSB, formally known as the KGB) to legally access private communications since 1995.

Furthermore, under the most recent “SORM-2” legislation, all internet providers are required to install a high-speed communications line that reroutes the activity of their clients straight to FSB headquarters.

Add to this the unprecedented crackdown on civil society that Putin has implemented since his reelection to the presidency last year — the raiding of NGO offices and arresting opposition politicians such as Sergei Udaltsov and Alexey Navalny — and one does not see a pretty picture of Russian governance.

Carroll Bogert of Human Rights Watch, commenting on Snowden being granted asylum in Russia, suggested he learn the phrase "iz ognya da v polymya" — Russian for “out of the frying pan and into the fire.”

Snowden’s stay in Mother Russia is intended to be temporary. However, should he choose to remain there, he will be forced to make a difficult choice.

As a self-styled crusader for good governance and transparency, keeping silent about the human rights abuses in his host country would destroy his public integrity. But speaking out would see him sent straight back to the United States and into the waiting arms of the CIA.

If a whistleblower is compelled by his conscience to report on wrongdoings, can he stay mum? If Snowden chooses to prize safety over integrity, would that not go against everything he has done and said thus far?

Your move, Edward.

Pavlo Ostapenko is based in London as a strategy and management consultant for NGOs and international organizations. For many years, he worked in human rights campaigns in his native Ukraine as well as in Russia and other Eastern European countries.