Is Edward Snowden about to get out of Moscow's airport?
The NSA leaker's lawyer says Russia might let him walk free, temporarily. Then what?
Edward Snowden has been holed up in the transit zone of a Moscow airport for most of the last month, trying to avoid being sent home to the U.S. to face espionage charges for leaking secret documents on National Security Agency surveillance programs. But within days Snowden might finally be allowed to walk out the door and roam Russia freely, at least according to his Russian lawyer.
Snowden submitted a handwritten request for temporary asylum to Russian authorities this week. "Any day now, Snowden may get an official confirmation from the Federal Migration Service" that the application is being reviewed, his attorney, Anatoly Kucherena, tells the Los Angeles Times. "With this document, he will be able at last to leave the airport and properly and legally enter Russia."
For all you amateur graphologists, you can examine Snowden's handwriting yourself.
That would end what has surely been a rough few weeks for Snowden. Sheremetyevo airport, where he has been stuck, is "a notoriously dreary place that most travelers are happy to leave as quickly as possible," writes Sergei L. Loiko at the Times. If the document confirming his application does go under review, that would give him three months of breathing time while immigration officials decide whether to grant him a longer stay.
If the Federal Migration Service approves Snowden's request, he will be able to stay in the country for a year, with most of the rights Russian citizens have, including the right to work. He can also apply for extensions once his time is up — if he manages to stick around for five years, he can even apply for citizenship.
The more likely scenario, however, is that he would just get a temporary reprieve in what will prove to be an ongoing ordeal. Russian President Vladimir Putin says he is eager to see Snowden move on, because he's not worth the potential damage his presence could do to the country's relations with the U.S. Still, Putin says, it's up to immigration authorities, not him, to decide what to do with Snowden, and Russia won't be bullied into kicking him out — although Putin extracted a promise from Snowden not to leak any more secrets that could be damaging to the U.S. as a condition for even considering allowing him to remain in the country.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has suggested the U.S. should boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics, to be held in Sochi, Russia, if Moscow shelters Snowden, although that almost certainly won't happen. Still, politicians on both sides of the aisle, many of whom view Snowden as a traitor, warn there will be repercussions if Russia takes in Snowden.
And no matter what Russia decides, Snowden's predicament will remain. "Even if Snowden is granted temporary asylum in Russia," says Jennifer Lai at Slate, "it would appear to do little to solve his bigger problem: Finding a way to get to Latin America, where he hopes to find more permanent refuge." Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Bolivia have signaled that they could take him in, if he can figure out how to get there.
That obstacle is what has kept Snowden in Russia. Putin says Moscow was not Snowden's destination — it's just where he was stuck when Washington revoked his passport. Now, the Russian president says, other countries are afraid to let any plane that might carry Snowden enter their airspace, for fear of angering the U.S.
"They themselves scared all other countries; no one wants to take him, and in this way they themselves in fact blocked him on our territory," Putin said. "Such a present for us for Christmas."