Edward Snowden is a great hero
Snowden in Russia The whistleblower and the Kremlin
Frederik Rother: He has won awards, films have been made about him and books written - we're talking about Edward Snowden. The former US secret service employee leaked documents to journalists in the spring of 2013 with explosive content: He exposed the massive, worldwide wiretapping practices of the American secret services. For many, Snowden has become a hero, for US politicians he is a traitor.
Snowden's publications continue to have an impact today. And his escape from the US judiciary only came to a temporary end: Snowden has been granted asylum in Russia for exactly five years - albeit for a limited period. Questions to Gesine Dornblüth, Russia connoisseur and former correspondent for Deutschlandfunk in Moscow.
Ms. Dornblüth, Edward Snowden has been in Russia for five years. What do you know about his life there, what is he doing today?
Gesine Dornblüth: He leads a fairly inconspicuous life, but we know very little about him. He seldom gives interviews and if so, only to the international press and not the Russian. He recently gave a lengthy interview to the Süddeutsche Zeitung, where he said: I take the subway, live in an apartment with my girlfriend, and pay rent like everyone else. His exact place of residence is unknown, it has to be somewhere in Moscow or the Moscow area. He earns money with lectures, he says, he is always involved in international symposia and allegedly he also has an IT consultancy contract with a large corporation, but none of this can really be checked.
There was a lot of secrecy
Rother: Snowden's escape in 2013 kept the world in suspense, only when the Kremlin granted him protection did some calm return. At the time you were in Moscow as a correspondent, how did you experience that time?
Dornblüth: Yes, that was a very big vortex. There was this news out of the blue that Snowden was approaching from Hong Kong to Moscow. And there was a lot of secrecy all along. There were puzzles about his whereabouts, after all he was in the transit area of Sheremetyevo Airport for several weeks. Or not, we still don't know, maybe he was somewhere else in between. There were always journalists who went there looking for him and couldn't find him.
We puzzled a lot about the role of the Russian government in all of this. Foreign Minister Lavrov said early on that we had nothing to do with it, we heard about it from the press. There was guesswork about his plans. Snowden tried to travel on to Venezuela, but that failed. And also the entry into Russia five years ago today, that he was granted asylum, that happened quite unnoticed by journalists. Again there was a bunch of colleagues there and somehow he went out of the airport through a back door and no one saw him at all.
Great domestic political benefit for the Kremlin
Rother: You mentioned the Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, let's move to the political level. Again and again there is the accusation that Snowden is working with the Russian secret service. What is it?
Dornblüth: It has not been proven, but it is correct, that the Snowden cause ultimately led Obama to cancel his meeting with Putin in 2013. There had been no such thing in decades. As for the secret service, there were always denials, very early on from Putin. He said this isn't our agent, we don't work with him. In the interview I mentioned with the Süddeutsche Zeitung a few weeks ago, Snowden said that the Russian secret service had tried to recruit him when he arrived, that he had very decidedly refused to cooperate and that there had been no further inquiries since then.
What one can say in any case: Snowden is not free in Russia. He was assigned a Russian lawyer who is considered a Kremlin man who campaigned for Putin. And then there was an ominous appearance by Snowden at Putin's televised consultation in 2014. Snowden was also there and gave Putin a head start with the question of whether Russia was also tapping into its citizens en masse, and Putin denied that and said that it was at all not possible in Russia. It was already known that Russia would do that very well.
Rother: How does the Kremlin use the famous refugee?
Dornblüth: Michael McFaul, the then US ambassador, wrote in a book that it was a PR disaster for the USA and a PR coup for Russia. The political benefit was and is immense, much greater than a possible secret service. And above all, it has a domestic political benefit, because since Snowden appeared in Russia and received protection, nobody talked anymore about human rights violations in Russia, or a few, but the world was talking about human rights violations in the USA at the time.
Trump has sharply criticized Snowden
Rother: Let's take a quick look at the USA. In Donald Trump, the country has a president who has repeatedly attracted attention with his pro-Russia tones. Both heads of state met recently. What role does Snowden play here?
Dornblüth: Trump criticized Snowden very sharply before his election, in several tweets but also in a CNN interview. He said that Snowden was a total traitor and that he would be tough on him. And if I become president, Putin will hand him over, I guarantee you that. And strangely enough, Trump has not made this demand publicly since he was president.
Ahead of the Trump and Putin summit in Helsinki, there were now rumors that Snowden might be an issue there. Putin's spokesman, Peskov, said shortly before the meeting that rumors that Russia was ready to extradite Snowden were absolutely inappropriate and that there was no question of them. And we still don't know what Putin and Trump discussed in Helsinki. Snowden is not known to have been approached. So he is still in Moscow and his residence permit is still valid until 2020.
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