Poor Edward Snowden.
At significant risk to himself, an apparently idealistic and articulate man comes out with revelations that could be seen as straight out of a summer thriller. He suggests that there is a basis for the cynicism that many have come by default to attribute to government. Our worst suspicions - about privacy, the convergence of the large tech companies we now rely on in our everyday lives, the post-9/11 assault on civil liberties - seem confirmed. For Americans in particular, many of whom won’t give out bank details and have the right to shoot you if you enter their private property, these are intrusions that would appear to be a textbook case of Constitutional rights being violated.
But then what happens?
The young man is branded by a large swath of media consumers as guilty by association. Some allow that whistle-blowers are necessary but add that such people must surely be driven by a limelight-loving, self-aggrandizing side. Or if he is not a self-absorbed type like Assange, then he must be callow and emotionally unstable, like Manning. Others pipe in: he’s a fellow traveler. Surely we will see him any day now schmoozing with Putin, in the style of Assange interviewing Correa or Sean Penn talking to Castro.
While the Snowden affair has to this point mostly indicated how quickly American soft and hard power is waning, the establishment can take solace in the fact that, if they were to choose such an avenue, it is still ridiculously easy to undermine a man’s reputation by mere fog and smoke, by casually dropped hints. Vague allegations of misconduct or, in the case of Snowden, second-guessing of intentions, can be applied with great ease.
Give Him the Benefit of the Doubt
I am shocked at how many opinion leaders and people in the greater trans-Atlantic community have taken up this sort of insinuating line, no sooner than the first reports came in that Snowden was at Sheremetyevo Airport in Russia. A man is on the run for his life, has limited options - and yet many choose to use the occasion to grandstand about his alleged choice of transit lounge, just because it happens to be in the territory of a historical enemy.
Is their position really that insecure that they need to remind people continually that Russia scores abysmally on media freedom rankings? I didn’t think so. Yes, Putin takes daily polonium and lead supplements and eats journalists for breakfast. Certainly there is a sizable military buildup under way along Russia’s Western borders, which based on historical evidence, I would suggest either has to be explained convincingly, or stopped – quite soon.
But is this the precise moment to drum up more minutes of hatred against Russia? Everybody is tired of it, or they should be. We have been hearing since the Yeltsin era that Russia is descending into the inferno, or that it is becoming wrapped in yet another Russian-doll-like nested layer of enigma. And even if Putin did reform by some miracle, we would probably not give him credit.
The Best Way to Deprive Putin of PR Value Is Proactive
The other thing is that balling one’s fists in futile rage at Putin exploiting a situation for the media isn’t really a very constructive position. If you don’t want Russia to get all the attention, lobby Estonia to do something about it - to offer Snowden asylum, or at least say they are thinking about it.
Some observers have already wistfully remarked on the fact that Estonia starts with the letter E and has a similar-looking outline to that of Ecuador. Instead of giving some caudillo or leftist more face time, couldn’t Estonia be the brain-shaped country that gives electronic freedom activists refuge or at least safe passage?
Estonia would not be in such bad company here, as Iceland is also on the fence as a possible destination for Snowden (though you hear less about this compared to Cuba and Ecuador). And unlike Icelandair, Estonian Air does not fly to the states, so it would not face sanctions. But it does fly to Moscow.
Public opinion would also lean in favor of a freedom activist: Estonia has a healthy libertarian streak, and unlike some countries, where this streak is seated in the crazy-right, in Estonia’s case it is still largely intellegentsia who are building the movement.
It’s a daydream, of course. Asylum for Snowden here won’t happen. Estonia has long ceased to make surprising and brilliant tactical moves. (Let’s face it, Estonia has ceased to make almost any tactical moves; and it seems fated to shuffle along with the crowd according to a long-range strategy.)
But Snowden is unlikely to be the last such "fugitive,” so it’s food for thought. Taking a stand would be a PR coup (though certainly it would cause unpredictable repercussions). There are also direct benefits: the question of how Estonia and other US allies are affected by the wiretapping allegations remains unresolved. It is not out of the question that if Snowden has information, it would shed more light on what the nature of the relationship is. Ultimately, this is about turning a lose-lose situation around, to at least something a little better, for Snowden, adversaries of Putin, and opponents of big-government snooping.