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Putin’s Pardons

A sign of strength or of weakness?

Jan 13, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 17 • By CATHY YOUNG
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But why this decision, and why now? The most obvious explanation is that Putin is seeking a public relations coup in the run-up to the Sochi Winter Olympics—a project in which he has a strong personal and political investment—to offset the negative publicity about the human rights situation in Russia. Interestingly, Khodorkovsky himself has downplayed the Sochi factor in interviews, telling Albats that he believes Putin freed him primarily as a display of strength, to show the nation and the world that he has nothing to fear from Khodorkovsky as a rival (and, secondarily, to send a message to the overly aggressive hardliners in his entourage). 

Some Russian commentators have echoed this theme: In the mostly pro-government daily Izvestia, political analyst Boris Mezhuyev writes that Khodorkovsky’s release is a sign of how secure Putin feels in his power and marks the end of elite opposition, deprived of one of its key demands—amnesty for political prisoners. The independent media tend to offer a different perspective. In his column in the English-language Moscow Times, Moscow-based writer Victor Davidoff points out that in the 1980s, the release of high-profile political prisoners such as dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov reflected the Soviet regime’s growing instability in the face of economic woes, and suggests that the same may be true today. blogger Alexander Skobov believes that Putin knew a third Khodorkovsky trial could not be won with even a minimum of international decorum and granted his opponent a “humanitarian” pardon to save face.

While the amnesties have done little to improve Putin’s image, Khodorkovsky has generally received high marks for his own conduct—even if some of his post-release statements rankled many of his supporters. Russian liberals were particularly disappointed by his comments in the New Times interview endorsing Putin’s war in Chechnya as a lesser evil than Chechnya’s secession and the likely resulting bloodshed; however, Khodorkovsky’s advocacy of a nationalism based on strong statehood rather than ethnicity may well broaden his populist appeal, similar to that of activist and blogger Alexei Navalny (of whom Khodorkovsky has spoken approvingly). Even opposition members critical of some of Khodorkovsky’s views have hailed his dignity in the face of hardship and his moral victory in refusing to admit guilt or to thank Putin. 

None of the newly released political prisoners is a saint. It is likely that Khodorkovsky, like Russia’s other early capitalists of the 1990s, built his enormous fortune using at least some ethically questionable means; there was no other road to wealth in post-Communist Russia. The Pussy Riot members, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina, had a history of tacky and sometimes obscene political performance art, and their church protest was widely criticized as offensive to believers—though it should be noted that they at least did not disrupt a service, and their song, while vulgar, targeted church-state ties and not religion itself. 

And yet, in the face of persecution, all three seem to have genuinely risen to the moral stature of prisoners of conscience. At their December 27 press conference in Moscow, Tolokonnikova and Alekhina looked poised and gracious as they made clear that they would not repeat their in-your-face antics today, while also stressing that Putin’s repressive machine made it impossible to be heard without being provocative. The women received a friendly reception from the press; in a further sign of their acceptance by the respectable opposition, they announced a joint project with Navalny—who had once criticized their cathedral protest as stupid and offensive—to work for prisoners’ rights.

Khodorkovsky—who, by most estimates, still has a significant fortune, though it’s unclear how much he will be able to access or how soon—also intends to focus on human rights and projects to strengthen Russia’s civil society. For now, he has ruled out active involvement in politics; indeed, it is unclear whether he will be able to return to Russia.

At least so far, Putin’s pardons do not signify a general thaw. While another 8 people convicted on various charges related to unsanctioned protest rallies in Moscow have also been released in the amnesty, nearly 30 more activists were arrested in a protest on Moscow’s Triumfalnaya Square on New Year’s Eve; according to the independent press, several of the detainees were badly beaten, and one of the victims has been charged with assaulting two police officers. 

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