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07/03/2013

In transit and in trouble: Edward Snowden in Moscow airport

Snowden blog airport
Media hunt for Edward Snowden in Sheremetyevo Airport. Photo: Reuters/Maxim Shemetov

Pity Edward Snowden. It’s hard to be the world’s most, and least, wanted man.

After revoking his application to stay in Russia -- a result of President Vladimir Putin’s unexpected demand to “stop activities aimed at inflicting damage to our American partners” with more top secret leaks -- he’s banged up in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport for an undetermined stretch.

So far all Snowden’s bids for asylum have been turned down like a duvet at the Ritz. Or met with an unlikely “we’ll think about it.”  From ultra-liberal Iceland to media-hostile Ecuador to repressive Russia, nobody, it seems, wants him in their country.

Except possibly for post-Hugo-Chavez Venezuela, whose new president made encouraging noises, but is also trying to smooth relations with America, its best oil customer.

Snowden’s U.S. citizenship hasn’t been revoked, because that’s against international law. But his passport has been cancelled, and the feds are hot on his trail with treason charges for his revelations about the National Security Agency’s massive electronic spying programs.

So until further notice he’s a guest of Sheremetyevo’s transit area, in the old Terminal F, aka Travel Hell Central until the late 2000s.

As a frequent traveler, I felt a bout of terminal illness come on every time I approached the place. It wasn’t just the grimy corridors and suspicious stares of the taciturn customs and immigration officials, but the knowledge that any imagined infraction or computer breakdown could turn into an hours-long battle of wills and a missed flight.

Before one trip to London, my British travelling companion vanished from a parallel passport lineup. His cell phone was unresponsive.  Was it something I said?

Then I caught a glimpse of him being frog-marched into a security booth. “Call the office,” he shouted. “I’m being detained.”  He had, it seemed, made the fatal mistake of forgetting to renew his visa, which expired the day before. And as he no longer had the right to be in the country, the officials had decided to keep him there.

Snowden, likely, hasn’t faced Toby’s fate of confinement to a metal chair in a stuffy office, (where he was  released a few hours later with threats and warnings.) Russia says it would like the former agent to leave for anywhere, anytime.

And happily, life in Sheremetyevo is far different now. Although Snowden disappeared from view after his landing from Hong Kong, and is apparently in a hidden location, he wouldn’t have been greeted by the old transit area’s ersatz “espresso,” spongy sweet rolls and stale sandwiches or the overcrowded “lounges” that prompted me to travel in old clothes that were suitable for sitting on the floor.

In the new improved Sherry, two terminals have been integrated and a welcome new rail link added, with an annual handling capacity of 25 million visitors. International fast food stands serve up the junk you’ve been missing since you left home. If you’ve a yen for Prada, you can catch up on your designer shopping. For a longer stop there’s an upscale hourly hotel room with handy shower.

If Snowden came out of hiding, he could make the airport a bigger tourist draw than the Kremlin for gawkers and fans, as well as hundreds of reporters and international spooks hoping to spot the celebrated leaker hunched over his computer in Starbucks or munching on a patty in Burger King.

He could even spark a new reality show: Stateless Survivor.

Olivia Ward was Moscow bureau chief and correspondent from 1992 to 2002 and spent countless hours she’ll never get back in Sheremetyevo Airport.   



       

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