MOSCOW, Russia – As the deadline looms for Edward Snowden to accept Venezuela’s offer of asylum, the self-declared NSA leaker must soon choose his next move – assuming he moves anywhere at all.
The fugitive still hasn’t been seen at Sheremetyevo Airport –and certainly nowhere near an airplane – but the rumors about his whereabouts are flying: That a three-hour delay for Monday’s Aeroflot flight from Moscow to Havana must be suspicious; that, according to Al Jazeera’s website Snowden is already in Venezuela; that the 24-hour deadline imposed by Venezuela Sunday was just a ruse to throw everyone off track.
Despite applying to at least 20 countries for refuge to avoid U.S. prosecutors, Snowden’s choices now seem to boil down to a "trifecta" offer of asylum by three leftist and vocally anti-Washington, Latin American nations: Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia. And maybe also Iceland.
However, what if Snowden decides that he wants to stay in Russia?
‘’He can say, ‘I want to stay here’,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, a seasoned Kremlin-watcher and editor of the journal "Russia in Global Affairs." “Why not? He can say ‘I don’t trust Cubans. I don’t trust Venezuelans, I trust Russia.’ But then what?’’
Snowden would probably have to resubmit the asylum application he allegedly withdrew after Russia’s President Vladimir Putin said he could only stay if he stopped leaking U.S. intelligence secrets.
An asylum application would be the start of a long-term headache for Russia which Putin seems keen to avoid. If Snowden choses to stay here in Moscow, Putin would be forced to choose between handing the whistle-blower to U.S. prosecutors – and risk looking weak in the eyes of his Russian voters – or give Snowden sanctuary, damaging already-strained relations with Washington.
‘‘Right now, for example, there’s an intensified relationship between U.S. and Russian security services focused on Dagestan and counter-terrorism, leading up to the Sochi Olympics, “ explained Lukyanov. ‘’The Kremlin and the Russian security community wouldn’t want to derail everything because of this Snowden guy.’’
This lose-lose proposition seems to have forced Putin to consider a third option – playing like Snowden isn’t there and hoping he leaves as soon as possible – preferably before September when President Barack Obama is due in Moscow for the G-20 summit meeting of world leaders.
The Russian newspaper Kommersant, quoting sources close to the State Department, reported Monday that Obama may cancel his G-20 trip if Snowden remains in Russia.
It is unlikely Snowden will be welcomed. Alexei Pushkov, a lawmaker believed to have Putin’s ear, posted several comments on Twitter along the lines of the old saying “Hate to see you go but here’s your hat and coat.” One tweet implied that Venezuela would be a good choice for Snowden because that country’s relations with Washington were already so bad that his presence there could not make things any worse.
Another tweet said: “Venezuela is waiting for an answer from Snowden. This perhaps is his last chance to receive political asylum.’’
Since Snowden arrived at Sheremetyevo airport on June 23, officials have reportedly kept him in a heavily-guarded and isolated wing of a hotel on the perimeter of the airport’s transit zone. The area is reportedly a diplomatic no-man’s land reserved for transit passengers without Russian visas. It has been described as a comfortable but sterile quasi-prison where Snowden must ask permission to walk in the corridor and never leaves the floor, but can order room service.
If Snowden choses Caracas as his future home, he’ll need to make that known to the Venezuelan government Monday. That's the deadline imposed early Sunday by the country’s Venezuela’s foreign minister.
He will also need emergency travel documents – he is currently carrying a canceled U.S. passport – which could be arranged in private meetings between Venezuelan and Russian officials.
And he will need an itinerary that avoids U.S. or European airspace, otherwise he may find himself grounded. That's what happened to Bolivian President Evo Morales when he was forced to land in Vienna, Austria last week and his plane was searched for Snowden.
‘’If he stays here, for political reasons, for technical reasons, for bureaucratic reasons, I don’t know. That of course will be a very big problem which will overshadow all the rest,’’ Lukyanov said.
Snowden has lived like an invisible man for more than two weeks. But he may be about to make his presence truly felt for Putin – the world leader who most wants to see the back of him.
First published July 8 2013, 10:02 AM