Khodorkovsky’s release

'At most the move is nothing more than a begrudging concession to world opinion as Russia prepares to host the Winter Olympics.'

rusian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky 370 (photo credit: Reuters)
rusian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky 370
(photo credit: Reuters)
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.
Khodorkovsky’s 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 phase.
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.
Considering Putin’s 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 people.
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.