Putin Surprise Pardon of Khodorkovsky Bolsters Aura of Power

For Vladimir Putin, even a show of clemency toward an adversary locked away in a remote prison is a demonstration of power.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky was released from prison today and left the country for Germany after Putin signed a decree pardoning the former oil billionaire for humanitarian reasons. The Russian leader unexpectedly announced he was pardoning his country’s most prominent prisoner yesterday in a comment lobbed at a throng of reporters as he left his annual news conference.

The move changed the conversation two days after a $15 billion bailout to Ukraine. That deal had set off alarms around the globe about Soviet-style expansionism, adding to a crescendo of criticism over gay rights abuses.

Ending more than a decade of imprisonment for the former owner of Yukos Oil Co. shocked everyone, including Khodorkovsky’s mother and lawyers, and underscored the Russian leader’s aura of power. While the move helps shore up Putin’s image as he prepares to host the world at the Winter Olympics in February, it’s also a reminder of his dominance, according to Masha Lipman, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

“With negative publicity pouring all over him, Putin dramatically changed the news cycle,” Lipman said in a telephone interview yesterday. “It only reinforces the way that Russia is managed as a political monopoly of one man. The most important decisions are only his to take, and he takes them in secrecy and keeps everyone in the dark.”

Sochi Games

Putin is working through some of the biggest human-rights complaints about his regime as the country prepares to stage the Winter Olympics in Sochi Feb. 7-23.

Two members of the all-female punk band Pussy Riot, imprisoned for hooliganism over a protest against the Russian leader, were included this week in an amnesty of as many as 22,000 people. Thirty participants of a Greenpeace protest will also be part of the reprieve.

“This was done before the Sochi Olympics -- after 10 years of the Russian image suffering tremendously from what the rest of the world saw as unjust persecution,” Ariel Cohen, a senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at the Heritage Foundation, said by phone from Washington.

Khodorkovsky, 50, was the most prominent symbol of selective justice and the weakness of rule of law in Russia. He was arrested on the runway of a Siberian airport in 2003 and his jail time included time served in a penal colony in the Chita region near the border with China before his transfer to prison in Karelia by the Finnish border in 2011.

‘Wishful Thinking’

He had two convictions for tax evasion, money-laundering and oil embezzlement. Khodorkovsky maintained his innocence, saying the cases against him were retribution for financing opposition parties, an accusation which the Kremlin has denied.

His release was a surprise after human rights ombudsman Vladimir Lukin said less than two weeks ago that Khodorkovsky was unlikely to be freed this month under Putin’s amnesty plan and that hopes for a reprieve were “wishful thinking.”

Putin said he’d grant Khodorkovsky’s release to allow him to visit his ailing mother.

“He’s already spent more than 10 years in prison, that’s a serious punishment,” Putin said in comments shown on state television. “He cited humanitarian circumstances, his mother is ill. I believe that such a decision can be taken and soon a decree will be signed pardoning him.”

Putin’s Surprise

Khodorkovsky’s mother, Marina, told RT television that Putin’s decision came as a “bolt from the blue,” according to a transcript of her remarks e-mailed by the state-run broadcaster. She said she last saw her son in prison in August and was only allowed to call him once a week on Saturdays.

The release is “a smart public relations move,” according to Lilit Gevorgyan, a senior economist at IHS Global Insight in London. Still, the “oscillation between relatively more liberal or stricter” policies is “nothing new” for Putin, she said.

The Carnegie Moscow Center said Putin’s move was also intended to “humiliate” his former opponent by forcing him to make an effective admission of guilt by asking for a pardon, and thereby send a warning to other political foes.

Alexey Navalny, one of the leaders of mass protests against Putin in 2011-2012, was sentenced this year to a five-year prison term for fraud, which was suspended on appeal.

Navalny, an anti-corruption blogger who also faces other fraud charges, denies any wrongdoing and says he is being targeted for political reasons. He denounced the Russian authorities today for “taking away 10 years of the life” of Khodorkovsky through “unjust convictions” according to a blog posting.

‘Effective, Independent’

The decision to declare the amnesty to release prisoners is evidence of the “politicization of justice in Russia,” rather than a step toward an “effective, independent” justice system, Amnesty International said in a statement before Putin announced his pardon of Khodorkovsky, whom the organization considers a prisoner of conscience.

With that perception prevailing, it may be difficult for Putin to change his image abroad with such gestures, according to Sergei Karaganov, dean of the Faculty of World Economy and Politics at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.

“It could positively affect his image at the margins,” Karaganov said by phone yesterday. “Russia openly challenges many Western policies, and that’s probably the main reason Russia’s image is so bad.”

Even if improving the country’s perceptions abroad before the Sochi Olympics is important for Putin, he wouldn’t create a risk with Khodorkovsky’s release, said Boris Makarenko, deputy director at the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow.

“Let’s not forget that Putin has made liberal gestures before, but they haven’t been systemic,” Makarenko said by phone yesterday. “Putin freed Khodorkovsky because apparently he doesn’t see any political danger from him.”

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