Alexander Barankov’s story has echoes of a Cold War spy thriller. “When I saw so many secret service cars coming for me,” the softly-spoken 31-year-old says as he sits in a Quito shopping mall, “I realized they would stop me at the traffic lights so I sped off. I ran five red lights.” Barankov, who is from Belarus, is talking about the day in July 2009 that he fled his home city of Minsk and Europe’s so-called last dictator, the country’s President Alexander Lukashenko. Barankov fled to Russia though believed he should not stay there too long as “the [Belarusian] KGB could find me. They’d put me in a car and take me back to Minsk.” He finally found his way to Ecuador, through Egypt, and has lived there since August 2009. He was detained twice by authorities but was finally granted refugee status last year, shielding him from extradition.
Ecuador, of course, is the rumored future sanctuary of a new fugitive dissident. Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor turned whistleblower, is seeking asylum in the Andean nation. He follows in the footsteps of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange who has been granted asylum though is unable to leave the Ecuadorian Embassy in London lest he be seized by British authorities.
There are parallels between the experience of Barankov and Snowden, as well as Assange. Barankov, who worked in a financial crimes unit in Minsk’s police force, says he uncovered an illegal oil-smuggling network connected to Lukashenko and close associates. On arriving in Ecuador, he set up a blog to make his allegations public. Barankov faces charges of bribery and fraud back home, and is accused of extorting bribes from people he supposedly told were being investigated by his unit—charges that Barankov dismisses as politically-motivated. The government in Belarus has not responded directly to his allegations regarding the oil-smuggling network.
Snowden leaked extremely sensitive information that revealed a vast US government surveillance apparatus that roped in the world’s largest communications companies. Assange released, through WikiLeaks, hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables that made US government secrets public. All three remain wanted men.
Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa, a left-leaning ally of late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, has used the asylum requests to buoy his political reputation as a thorn in the West’s side. When London hastily threatened to storm the Ecuadorian Embassy to arrest Assange in August, Ecuador’s Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño had a field day. “We are not a British colony,” he said angrily. “The colonial times are over.” Correa described the threat as a “grave diplomatic error.”
Apart from tweaking the great powers, the 50-year-old president has used political refugees as a pawn to also make friends. In June 2012, just three weeks before Lukashenko visited Cuba, Venezuela and Ecuador — coincidentally Snowden’s reported route to Ecuador — Barankov was arrested in Quito and held in prison for 84 days.
Correa’s own human rights record is far from unblemished. A new media law enacted this month allows for an Orwellian-sounding Council of Content Regulation to punish news outlets that do not report topics the body considers “news.” The Council can also fine outlets for criticizing officials; it would determine what is untrue or unfair. Local columnist Emilio Palacio last year won asylum in Miami having fled Ecuador after he and three owners of his newspaper, El Universo, were sentenced to prison time and ordered to pay $40 million in damages after publishing an opinion piece which called Correa a “dictator.”
Barankov was initially attracted to Ecuador by some of the world’s most lenient visa policies. “This was the one place I thought I could be safe,” he says. “I didn’t have visas for anywhere else.” Nationals of only a small handful of countries require visas to stay here. Ecuador is also one of only seven countries in the world to accept the World Passport, a private initiative set up in the 1950s citing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The other accepting countries are Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Tanzania, Togo, the Vatican and Zambia, according to the initiative’s website. The small equatorial country boasts the highest refugee population in the region, primarily due to longstanding conflicts in neighboring Colombia, according to UNHCR.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has confirmed that Snowden is currently sheltering in the transit area of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, adding that he would not be extradited to the US. The transit area is Russian territory though the 30-year-old has not formally entered the country. “The sooner he chooses his final destination, the better it would be for us and for himself,” said Putin. According to Assange, Snowden is travelling on a refugee document of passage provided by Ecuador though the silver-haired 31-year-old, in a conference call with reporters earlier this week, cryptically added that asylum had been sought “possibly [from] other countries” as well as Ecuador.
Patiño said that no decision has yet been made on Snowden’s asylum request. Ecuador has sought to boost relations with the US in recent years, reinstating Ambassadorial level links last May after Correa kicked out the US Ambassador in 2011 over the contents of a WikiLeaks cable. The US is Ecuador’s top trading partner, with some 45 percent of exports heading to it. There is little doubt that Patiño, Correa and their advisors are weighing up whether they want to become embroiled in another major international diplomatic incident. Denying asylum to Snowden may improve ties with the US. However, Patiño’s language so far has hinted an alternate outcome. The 58-year-old politician said in Hanoi earlier this week that Snowden was being persecuted.
Barankov was initially scared of Belarusian authorities tracking him down here, a worry that Snowden may have should he arrive. “My country doesn’t stop,” he told me when we first met a day after he was given refugee status here in August, worried that “one of Lukashenko’s dogs will come to Quito,” after having seen men here he suspected to be Belarusian agents. He still worries for his parents’ safety; they remain in Belarus. However, the last year has been quiet for Barankov who is settling into life here, learning Spanish, with a local girlfriend and doing a few part-time jobs. “I don’t know about [Assange and Snowden], but as for me, I can say that I’ve been fine and had no trouble in Ecuador.”