Last Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin surprised critics and supporters
when he announced that he would pardon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the smart Jewish
businessman. He had been convicted twice on what are widely regarded as
politicized charges. In the 1990s, Khodorkovsky made a fortune from the oil
industry by taking advantage of Russia’s anarchic post-Soviet era. But he ran
afoul of Putin and other Kremlin figures when he began concocting potential oil
deals with foreign investors and placing his prodigious wealth at the service of
opposition political parties and independent media.
incarceration, a decade ago, seemed to prove that the Putin regime would not
hesitate to crush its perceived enemies using a puppet justice system. The move
proved that a circle of Russian bureaucrats would do anything to accumulate vast
wealth and protect itself from rivalry, and that the course of democratic
development in Russia was in a deeply troubling and prolonged dark
What are we to make of Putin’s sudden change of mind? Taken
together with new amnesty legislation, which will likely lead to the release of
two jailed members of the punk rock band Pussy Riot, 30 members of Greenpeace
known as the “Arctic 30” and perhaps others held in Russia’s prisons for daring
to openly criticize Russia’s autocracy, Putin gives the impression that he is
attempting to reverse – if only modestly – the descent to an authoritarian
quasi- kleptocracy that Russian has become.
The most obvious motivation
is Sochi, Russia – the site of next year’s Winter Olympics. Russians are
spending around $50 billion there to showcase themselves to the world.
Khodorkovsky, Pussy Riot and the Greenpeace activists are much more of a
liability to Putin arrested than released. Keeping them jailed would only invite
pressure on statesmen to follow in US President Barack Obama’s lead and be
absent from the opening ceremony of the Olympics.
recent foreign policy successes, he can definitely afford to be magnanimous and
has little reason to feel threatened by Khodorkovsky as a potential political
rival. Russia led in defusing the situation in Syria, Putin successfully wooed
the Ukraine away from the EU’s orbit and into his own, and he has strengthened
ties with China.
At home he has faced down mass demonstrations against
his rule, easily quashing opposition using both legitimate and underhanded
methods (the murderous crackdown on investigative reporters is one example)
while consistently enjoying support from well over 50 percent of the Russian
Another theory, put forward by The New Yorker’s Masha Lipman, is
that Putin has been intimidated by lawsuits filed abroad by investors in
Khodorkovsky’s oil firm Yukos. These investors charged the Russian government
with the willful destruction of the company. They have already won several
cases. Last year, the Russian government was ordered to compensate a group of
Spanish investors for losses they suffered when Russia placed Yukos under state
control. According to this theory, Khodorkovsky was released on condition he
work to discourage further law suits.
Whatever the reason, no one
following Russian politics can seriously entertain the idea that Putin’s pardon
of Khodorkovsky marks a sea change away from an ultra-conservative autocracy
toward a more democratic mode of government with a strong, independent
judiciary. At most the move is nothing more than a begrudging concession to
world opinion as Russia prepares to host the Winter Olympics. Khodorkovsky is
free and that is a good thing. But too many opponents of the Putin regime remain
in prison for the dubious crime of political dissent. Pardoning of the
Khodorkovsky will not hide that sad fact.
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