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08.01.13

Moscow to Snowden: Welcome to Russia

With political asylum granted, the ‘hero’ Edward Snowden is free to stroll around Russia, his new home. Anna Nemtsova reports on the likely reasons that the Kremlin said yes.

Just one day after American whistleblower Edward Snowden was granted asylum in Moscow, the 30 year old seems to have the world at his fingertips. On Friday morning Snowden’s lawyer Anatoly Kucherena said in an interview to The Daily Beast that his client was receiving “tons” of job offers including various deals from television companies. The lawyer denied that the Kremlin continued to help Snowden: “Edward is being persecuted by the most powerful country in the world, the United States but he is alone providing his own security the way he understands it.”

Snowden's fame in Moscow was apparent the moment he stepped out of the Sheremetyevo airport transit zone and climbed into his first taxi. In less than an hour, Russian authorities, media, and businesses were referring to the former NSA leaker as “a hero” and “a star.” What he will do next, is still unclear. Some Muscovites suggest he should turn himself into a public figure and accept the marriage offer from Anna Chapman; others say he should continue to hide from reporters and help Russia improve its security system.

Snowden’s comment last week that he would find himself a job in Russia sounded interesting to Pavel Durov, the head of the Russian equivalent of Facebook, Vkontakte. Durov welcomed Snowden to become one more “star” in the team of the company’s programmers and move from Moscow to St. Petersburg. And a member of Russian Public Chamber, Sergei Markov, suggested in an interview with The Daily Beast that “golden talent” Snowden should start a star career at Russia Today television.

Russian officials don’t really seem concerned about the future of Russia-U.S. relationships now that Snowden can walk around Moscow. Andrei Soldatov, a security expert with sources in Russian secret services, explains the Kremlin’s reasoning for letting Snowden hide in Russia from the U.S. justice system. “The Kremlin wanted Snowden to leak everything he had while he was still officially outside of Russia in the transit zone. So now, as from August 1, Putin can say: ‘See, the leaking is over. Snowden does not cause any more damage to USA. I have promised he would not.’”

Soldatov does not believe that Snowden will be able to live the life of a public figure in Russia, and that it is not because officials feel concerned about his safety. “Snowden is an ideologist, a victim of certain conditions,” Soldatov says. “Most probably he is going to stay under full control of Russian special services and not talk freely to the opposition or independent press, but authorities might use him for official meetings or TV shows on the pro-Kremlin Russia Today,” Soldatov suggested.

In the weeks leading up to this moment, Russian officials and mainstream Russian media had been talking of the good reasons not to hand Snowden to the U.S. authorities. Russian diplomats accused American partners of "hypocritical" behavior for using double standards in the relationship with Russia. Neither requests from U.S. officials to kick Snowden out, nor warnings by the U.S. State Department, nor even threats to boycott the Sochi Olympics, managed to persuade the Kremlin to turn the NSA leaker over. The bottom line, Russian officials agreed, was that Snowden would be useful for Russia. Moscow's biggest complaint was that Washington ignored Russia's idea to sign  "an agreement for extradition," that would guarantee both sides a mutual exchange of bad boys. "We can currently see a campaign in Russian media that interprets the Kremlin's intentions of keeping that useful genius IT specialist Snowden in Moscow," the analyst Sergei Markov said.

Supposedly, a wanted Russian terrorist, Ilyas Akhmadov, currently "exists without any troubles on grants financed by the U.S. State Department," Russia's major network Channel One reported.

Sen. Aleksei Pushkov wrote on Twitter that by giving Snowden asylum, Russia would improve its image: "It will demonstrate that Russia joins the human rights defense on the international level," Pushkov added. Another expert on Russia's geopolitical decisions, Yuri Krupnov, admitted that by letting Snowden stay, Moscow "paid Washington revenge" for the Magnitsky Act, the bill signed by President Obama last year that punished Russian officials responsible for the death in prison of the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. "This is nothing but a bit of mockery: you hammer us with human rights, so here, have your human rights back," Krupnov commented.

In the last few weeks, says Snowden's lawyer Kucherena, he made “some good American friends” in Russia. “His new American friends helped him to find his own private body guards," Kucherena says. But will the NSA leaker's protectors be able to stop him from being watched and followed? No guarantee.