It is human nature to want to put a face on our stories, whether or not it really fits. Like a footballer making or missing a penalty in the final seconds of a game, one individual often gets credit or blame when he is mostly just a diversion from more important stories. Heroes and villains make for good narratives and this is especially true when someone can play both roles at the same time. That is the case of Edward Snowden, a traitor and spy to some and a whistleblower and hero to others. I have no special knowledge about his actions or his leaks, but I would surely feel differently about him had he not taken refuge in Russia, where his asylum request tacitly endorsed the dictatorial regime of his gracious host, Vladimir Putin.
My reaction is not only due to Snowden’s first statement from Russia, while he was still in legal limbo at the Sheremetyevo airport, in which he included Putin’s Russia—a police state and patron of despotism worldwide—on his list of nations that “stand against human rights violations carried out by the powerful rather than the powerless.” Putin’s many political prisoners would disagree quite strongly, and Snowden could have been more respectful of the many injured and dead among journalists and his fellow whistleblowers in Russia.
One note on Snowden’s NSA revelations, however, speaking as someone who grew up under the all-seeing eye of the KGB and who is fighting its modern rebirth under Putin. It is exasperating to hear blithe comparisons between the NSA, and other western spy organizations, and the vicious internal security regimes of the USSR and East Germany. The NSA is to the Stasi what a bad hotel is to a prison. It is not what a government does with data that defines it, it is what it does to human beings.
Any encroachment on the personal freedoms and rights of individuals by a government should be protested and debated, absolutely. The mechanisms to protest such abuses must be exercised regularly or they will be lost. But citizens behind the Iron Curtain were not terrified of the intelligence services because of data collection. We lived in fear because we knew what would happen to us if we gave any hint of dissent against the regime. As often as not, no data at all was required to persecute, disappear, torture, and murder potential enemies. If a court actually was involved, and evidence desired, it could simply be fabricated. And no, to take on the next argument I often hear, brutal totalitarianism does not begin with surveillance by a liberal democratic state. It begins with terror, it begins with violence, it begins with the knowledge that your thoughts and words can end your career or your life.
Mr. Snowden’s acts and his appearance in Moscow have had some impact in Russia, but it should not be exaggerated. Claims that Putin is passing these draconian new laws further restricting free speech as a way of “keeping up with the Joneses” at the NSA in response to Snowden’s leaks are absurd. Dozens of these laws have been put into effect over Putin’s 14-year reign, gradually vandalizing the Russian Constitution beyond recognition. Putin is always quick to exploit any opportunity to justify his authoritarian ways, but in many cases it is western leaders and press looking to make excuses for Putin and to avoid calling him a dictator. This is a genetic strength and weakness of the free world, the desire to be “fair and balanced” and to “show both sides of the story” even when it means giving the benefit of the doubt to someone who hasn’t deserved it in over a decade.
As for the estimation of Snowden among the Russian opposition, you must realize what his journey looks like in our eyes. The idea that an individual could carry out this mission and then flee to China and take refuge in Russia without any involvement by the KGB is hard to believe. Combine these logical suspicions with his asylum claim and the aforementioned false equivalency between dictatorships and democracies and Snowden is hardly cut out to be a sympathetic figure among those who respect the universal nature of human rights.
Putin will exploit Snowden as he does everyone and everything, but he has much bigger fish to fry. His first focus is on the uprising in Ukraine, where the people are proving violently disinclined against allowing President Viktor Yanukovych to lead their nation down Putin’s gold-plated road to despotism. Despite the resignation of the entire Ukrainian Cabinet on Tuesday and the Yanukovych government’s sudden willingness to make concessions to the courageous protestors, there may yet be a confrontation between Ukraine and its leaders (old or new) and Putin, who would rather have seen the protesters violently put down than peacefully accommodated. The Kremlin had hoped the Orange Revolution Virus had been isolated and contained along Russia’s borders and promised Ukraine $15 billion to aid in its quarantine. Yanukovych’s hasty turnaround shows that although he would like to live like Putin, he does not want to die like Gaddafi.
The roads in Sochi are not paved with gold, or at all in some cases, and this is Putin’s other main concern at the moment. The International Olympic Committee’s decision to award the Winter Games to the subtropical resort was outrageous and every day brings further confirmation of that fact. Valid concerns over a potential terrorist attack during the Winter Games starting on February 7 get most of the headlines, but the environmental catastrophe and epic corruption have already occurred. We should all wish for a safe and successful Games for the athletes. They cannot be held responsible for the venality of the IOC or Putin’s desire to play emperor with a personal five-ring circus. On every other level, however—for the Russian organizers, for NBC, and for sponsors like Coca-Cola—let these Winter Games be an abject failure. Outside the stadiums, Sochi will be defined by how well the Olympics shine a spotlight on the corruption and repression of Putin and all who willingly overlook his crimes.
Garry Kasparov is the chairman of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation.