Geopolitics

Hong Kong To Moscow: How Edward Snowden Wound Up In Russia

Western sources say Russia sought out the American whistleblower when he was on the run in Hong Kong. The Kremlin denies it.

Russian national TV reporting on Snowden's asylum request.
Russian national TV reporting on Snowden's asylum request.
Elena Chernenko, Aleksander Gabuev and Kirill Belyaninov

MOSCOWEdward Snowden never meant to spend much time in Russia.

Information from Kommersant sources paints a new picture of how the former National Security Agency employee ended up stuck in a Moscow airport, eventually to be granted temporary asylum.

After divulging sensitive documents about U.S. surveillance programs to the Guardian newspaper from a hotel in Hong Kong, Snowden talked to Russian officials about his travel plans before boarding the fateful flight to Moscow that was meant to be just the first leg on a longer journey to Latin America.

According to sources we spoke to, Snowden spent several days in the Russian consulate in Hong Kong before flying to Moscow on June 23. The diplomatic mission is located on the 21st floor of the Sun Hung Kai building in a fashionable neighborhood of Hong Kong. According to our sources, Snowden celebrated his 30th birthday at the Russian consulate on June 21.

Informed Western officials confirmed that Snowden spent time at the Russian consulate — and they say they know how he ended up there: the Russians most likely extended an invitation through the Chinese, who were looking to get rid of the high-profile spy turned whistleblower.

Neither the American embassy in Moscow nor the Russian consulate in Hong Kong responded to questions about how Snowden ended up at the Russian consulate.

A source in the Russian government confirmed that Snowden spent two days in the country's consulate in Hong Kong. According to this source, however, no one invited the American — he came to the consulate on his own, and informed the officials there that he intended to apply for asylum in Latin America, showing them his plane ticket to Havana, with a layover in Moscow. He explained to the officials that his life was in serious danger and asked for help, in accordance with the international convention on the rights of refugees.

According to one source, the fact that Russia did in fact agree to help does not contradict President Vladimir Putin’s statement that Snowden ended up in Moscow coincidentally. “Both his travel itinerary (meaning Latin America by way of Moscow) and his request for help were totally unexpected for us," says the source. "We didn’t know him.”

It appears as though circumstances forced Snowden to ask Russia for help. His identity as the leaker of documents about the NSA surveillance program came out when he gave an interview to The Guardian on June 9. The next day Snowden left the Mira hotel, where he had lived since mid-May, and disappeared. During his interview with The Guardian, Snowden said that he feared he could be kidnapped, and that he would ask for refugee status in a country that respects the freedom of speech, preferably Iceland.

On June 11, Dmitri Peskov, the press secretary for President Putin, announced that Moscow would consider an application from Snowden, should it receive one, and referenced Snowden’s remark from the interview.

One last chance

Two days later, the United States opened a criminal case against Snowden and asked a long list of countries not to admit him as a refugee. On June 15, Britain forbade airlines flying through the country to carry him. On the same day, Iceland announced that it would consider his asylum request only if he came to Iceland, and the following day Hong Kong said it would consider an extradition request from the U.S., which indeed sent the request five days later.

This whole time, Snowden was in the home of one of his friends in Hong Kong, where he met with WikiLeaks attorney Sarah Harrison and two local attorneys, who were trying to figure out how to avoid his extradition. They determined that he would probably be placed under arrest while the request was examined, but that the government would likely not prevent him from leaving the country if he did so soon. On June 21, he bought a ticket to Havana through Moscow, and on the same day, the U.S. informed Hong Kong and Beijing that Snowden’s passport had been blocked.

There is circumstantial evidence that Snowden might have asked Russia for assistance sooner. Just after he departed from Hong Kong, WikiLeaks released a statement saying that he had chosen a route that “guaranteed his safety.”

According to the source in the Russian government, Russia was counting on Snowden’s departure from Russian territory no later than 10 p.m. on June 23, as his plane ticket indicated. But he was not in seat 17A on the flight to Havana.

According to several sources, the Cuban government was pressured by the United States and informed Moscow that the plane would not be allowed to land in Cuba with Snowden on board. A source in the U.S. State Department confirmed that Cuba was one of the countries that received a warning from the U.S. that any help to Snowden would have “undesirable consequences.” Later, Putin remarked that the United States had blocked Snowden’s flight by scaring the countries through which he could travel to get to Latin America.

Edward Snowden had one last chance to make it to Bolivia on the presidential plane of Bolivian president Evo Morales, who was coming to Moscow for a planned visit in early July. As events would prove (nearly all European countries refused to let Morales’s plane fly in their airspace, and the plane was forced to land and be searched in Vienna), Snowden made the right choice in deciding not to take advantage of that chance.

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Society

How Low Trust In Government Fuels Violence Against Politicians

The deadly stabbing of UK MP David Amess confirms this researcher's ongoing study on trust and governance in democracies around the world: It's bad.

Tribute to slain UK MP David Amess in Leigh-on-Sea on Oct. 15

James Weinberg

The killing of British Conservative MP David Amess, who was stabbed to death in his constituency on October 15, is a tragic moment for democracy. What makes it even more devastating is that such a catastrophic failure is not without precedent or predictability. Labour MP Jo Cox was shot at her constituency surgery in 2016. Before her, another Labour MP, Stephen Timms, survived a stabbing in 2010. And Andrew Pennington, a Gloucestershire county councillor, died in a frenzied attack in 2001 while trying to protect local Liberal Democrat MP Nigel Jones.

This is to say nothing of the 2018 attack on the Palace of Westminster that left police officer Keith Palmer dead and MPs in a state of shock.

Beyond these critical junctures in the public debate about politicians' safety, elected representatives must live with an increasingly insidious level of popular cynicism that threatens violence on an almost daily basis.


Between the divisive politics of Brexit and the growing polarization of British party politics, MPs currently work in a low-trust, high-blame environment. Even before the existential angst and subsequent politicking of the COVID-19 pandemic, a recent Hansard Society audit of political engagement concluded that “opinions of the systems of governing are at their lowest point in the 15-year Audit series – worse now than in the aftermath of the MPs' expenses scandal."

The ramifications of governing in such an age of distrust are significant for the mental health and wellbeing of politicians. With colleagues, I've argued that such visceral and endemic distrust is a key stressor in political life. People are not simply wary or skeptical of politicians, they now routinely criticize their personalities and dismiss their good intentions. At its most severe, this “distrust stressor" manifests in the growing threat of physical violence faced by politicians.

Unfortunately, the distrust stressor is commonplace in the febrile climate of post-millennial UK politics. Serious cases of stalking and harassment have become a “common experience" for MPs. In the UK general election of 2017, for example, 56% of surveyed parliamentary candidates expressed concern about the levels of abuse and intimidation they had received and 31% said they had felt “fearful" during the campaign. Misuse of anonymous social media accounts has intensified these problems and created a toxic environment for elected politicians that regularly exposes them to online rape and murder threats.

Governing under threat

As part of an ongoing study of trust and governance in five democracies around the world, I recently carried out more than 50 in-depth interviews with junior and senior politicians in national legislatures, including questions on the stresses and strains of political life.

Reflecting on the ramifications of simply doing their job, one Conservative MP commented:

There have been votes that have been controversial, and you can then get a lot of abuse as a result of picking a side. My office has been vandalized, I've had stuff sent to me in the post, I've received death threats. And you do build up a very thick skin doing this job, there's no shadow of a doubt. Because one week in it, if you're not able to roll with the punches, you won't see through a whole term.

Almost 40% of interviewees were able to cite more than one instance of serious abuse or threats of physical violence. Not only are these experiences felt across both sides of the political aisle in the UK, but they also appear to be growing more common in other democratic contexts where the climate of politics has been presumed to be both calmer and more volatile. As one MP in New Zealand told me:

I've had some pretty horrible death threats and I've had a lot of abuse, particularly through social media. But also, funnily enough, in writing and phone calls. Unfortunately it's becoming more part of our political life.

Another, this time in South Africa, said:

What [this group of constituents] were saying is that if the water supply was not fixed by a certain time, they were going to kill me. And what they did is they took a tyre and said that this tyre was going to go around my neck and they're going to light it and that was going to be my demise. Listen, when you see your life flash before your eyes… you start to question whether it's worth it.

In the UK, analysis of data from the Representative Audit of Britain (a survey of all parliamentary candidates who stood in general elections between 2015 and 2019) suggests that the harassment, abuse and intimidation of elected and aspiring politicians is also highly gendered. Women politicians, and black and minority ethnic women in particular, experience a disproportionate share of sexualized abuse online. They also receive more aggressive and sexualized threats offline.

Contact between politicians and the public is at the very heart of effective democratic representation.

It is relatively easy to understand why all this would be detrimental to politicians' professional competence and their sense of personal worth and wellbeing, but it is harder to find solutions to this crisis.

Home Secretary Priti Patel has called for increased security measures in the wake of Amess's death. This is welcome but it's an instrumental response which might not be easy to implement. Political contact between politicians and the public is at the very heart of effective democratic representation – and it is unlikely that most MPs will agree to suspend constituency surgeries or fill their offices with armed guards at a time when governor-governed relations are already so strained.

Photo of \u200bNew Zealand's parliament in Wellington

New Zealand's parliament in Wellington

Guo Lei/Xinhua/ZUMA

Compassion and education

While specific issues around MPs' security and training are grappled with, we also need a call for conscious restraint and compassion in political discourse. When some politicians themselves resort to dog-whistle populism, verbal abuse and infighting, it broadcasts an image of politics as an arena for incivility. At the same time, it perpetuates a binary worldview that crowds out the possibility of empathy and compromise.

Alongside this, we need to overhaul the media coverage of politics. Increasingly intent on personalizing the political and politicizing the personal, a 24-hour news media too often drip feeds blunt stereotypes about politicians' personalities and motives. In contrast to much news coverage of politicians, my own research with hundreds of elected MPs and councillors has shown that the majority enter politics with an extraordinary dedication to improving the lives of others that is rarely perceived or appreciated by those they govern.

A deficit in democratic education leads to inflated public expectations about what is possible.

Equally important, nations around the world must commit to fully funded and well-resourced programmes of democratic education. Politics is messy and full of contingencies, and a deficit in democratic education leads to inflated public expectations about what is possible or desirable. In turn, this breeds disappointment and lowered self-efficacy, which together disrupt the positive potential of deliberative participation.

Ultimately, there is no place for political violence, harassment or intimidation in a functioning democracy. At the very least, politicians are ordinary humans attempting to undertake an extraordinary job on behalf of everybody else. Whatever their political views, nobody who has the courage to "step into the arena", to paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt, deserves to fear for their life in the pursuit of public service. To say that we need to rediscover civility and respect in our politics is once again an understatement of a devastating truth.The Conversation

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James Weinberg is a lecturer in Political Behavior at the University of Sheffield

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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