A Surprising Russian Judicial Decision, Snowden And The Meaning Of Real Civil Disobedience

When young Mr. Snowden chose to flee to China, then Russia and eventually to request asylum from Vladimir Putin’s government (carrying with him extensive amounts of highly classified data), he allegedly did so in an act of “whistle-blowing.”

From the beginning, however, one has had to wonder why someone who claims to be so committed to the causes of Internet freedom and personal privacy would choose four nations (China, Russia, Ecuador and Venezuela) as either choices for actual or potential protection, given that they each rank among the worst in the world when it comes to exactly those specific issues.

Obviously, Snowden’s supporters contend he had nowhere else to go but that argument is specious for at least three reasons: (1) He could have revealed what he knew within the United States and joined America’s proud tradition of civil disobedience (perhaps even through an existing whistle-blower program); (2) there are numerous other countries without extradition treaties to the United States – admittedly, few that have a genuine respect for human rights – but many that are at least not actively engaged in massive cyber-warfare against America (Even Canadian law would have prevented his extradition in the event Snowden faces treason charges given the possibility of a death sentence); Or (3) He could simply have attempted to release the information directly over Wikileaks – a very different move than allowing two major adversaries the opportunity for a “first look” advantage and the ability to subsequently control exactly what is and isn’t made public.

Now a new twist: A surprise Russian judicial ruling (although hopeful on its face) should remind all of us just how little real democracy exists beneath Putin’s iron first.

The court decision, handed down two days ago, released Russian political opposition leader, Aleksei A. Navalny — temporarily, at least, pending an appeal. Mr. Navalny had been expected to serve a lengthy term as a political prisoner. First, Nalvalny is hardly “off the hook.” Should he engage in further anti-Putin activities, it doesn’t take a physicist, a psychic or a spy to predict his ultimate fate. Second, as the New York Times pointed out: “[In Russia], once someone is convicted and imprisoned, release is virtually unheard-of.” In other words, the overall chilling effect, both on Navalny and his supporters specifically (not mention the rest of the country) couldn’t be more obvious – Let’s be realistic: Siberian is likey far more precise an adjective than chilling. It’s almost as if Putin is constructing a situation where he hopes to get more out of Navalny being “free” and quiet than locked up but still a symbol of overt oppression. We’ll have to wait and see what choices Mr. Navalny makes about his own future and that of his political movement. Ditto for ex-KGB agent Comrade Putin….

As for Comrade Snowden, illegally cooperating with countries that regularly engage in blatently anti-democratic tactics by providing direct access to US intelligence doesn’t strike me as particularly admirable (Nor do some of his public statements in which he has claimed that places like Hong Kong and Ecuador are free societies…) Real civil disobedience demands real moral courage.

Let’s remember that one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s most famous works was entitled, “Letter From A Birmingham Jail” – not “Letter From A Moscow Airport.”

That’s hardly a distinction without a difference.

[“Leading Putin Critic Is Freed Pending Appeal After Protests,” The New York Times, 7/18/2013]

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