Russian President Vladimir Putin has pardoned jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who spent a decade in a Russian jail for tax evasion and embezzlement. Almost at the exact same time, the Duma (the lower chamber in Russia’s parliament) voted unanimously to free as many as 20,000 prisoners to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the post-Soviet constitution. This amnesty includes the “Arctic 30” (Greenpeace protesters) and two members of the punk rock band/artistic collective Pussy Riot. The consensus in the West is that this is all a PR move ahead of the Sochi Olympics that open in February. However, there is more to it than that.
The Arctic 30 were arrested when they sailed their ship, Arctic Sunrise, past a Gazprom oil rig in the Arctic Sea, much to the consternation of the Russian government. They have been held since September, and although out on bail, the 26 non-Russians among them have been forbidden to leave Russia. “As for the fact that they can now get amnesty … we are not doing this for them,” Mr Putin said. “What happened must be a lesson and should, I hope, dispose us with Greenpeace to working positively together.” In other words, arresting and holding them has served its purpose, but putting them on trial will only make Russia look silly. Time to make the problem go away.
As for Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, the two members of Pussy Riot serving two-year sentences for an anti-Putin protest in an Orthodox church, they were scheduled for release in March anyway. By the time you read this, they may well be home with their families. Again, holding them through to the end of their sentences would give anti-Putin agitators something very specific to protest during the Olympics. Giving them their freedom a couple of months early cost Mr. Putin nothing.
The Khodorkovsky case is a bit different. In my opinion, Mr. Khodorkovsky should have served at least another decade in prison. A lot of anti-Putin pundits see only that he was a billionaire who started funding opposition political groups in Russia. For that, the government trumped up tax evasion charges and embezzlement claims against him for the way he managed his oil company Yukos. And in so far as that goes, they are correct. However, let’s remember how Khodorkovsky got Yukos in the first place. As a rising star in the Communist Party shortly before the Soviet Union went out of business, he was one of those who practiced the new Marxism — from each according to his greed and to each according to his agility. Misusing the deposits in a bank (Menatep) that he founded thanks to his ties to the top ranks in the Party, he bought Yukos for $350 million, a fraction of what it was worth. He effectively stole his billions from the Russian people. That the rest of the oligarchs have done no time doesn’t change my mind that he didn’t serve enough.
Nevertheless, the release of Khodorkovsky clears up another bone of contention with Putin’s opponents. At the same time, it says something about Putin’s perceptions of the current political situation. Russia has shifted to a more nationalist and culturally conservative position since Khodorkovsky was active in politics. Putin must clearly believe that Khodorkovsky poses no threat, that the man can’t raise any support for his “outdated” ideas. So, the pardon signals the emergence of a more self-assured Russian government.
Putin’s Russia remains paranoid. “Why was this [the Arctic 30 protest] carried out? Either it was to put pressure on a company or on someone’s orders interfere with Russia’s offshore development,” he said, suggesting foreign rivals could have been behind it, but naming no nation. Raising suspicions of foreign conspiracies and saboteurs has been a favorite ploy of the Kremlin’s since at least the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. However, Russia isn’t afraid to throw its weight around these days (for example in Ukraine), nor is it suffering from economic misery. The regime appears confident that the prisoners released are more valuable outside the prison system than they are locked up.
The Sochi Olympics are, of course, the catalyst for this sudden burst of clemency, but at the same time, these pardons illustrate that the Putin government (which will last to 2024 if he runs for a fourth term — if so, you can expect him to win either honestly or otherwise) is sure that it has the current Russian political climate under control.
When leaders like Putin are sure of their domestic support, they tend to get adventurous abroad. These pardons suggest to me that Russia is going to be more rather than less trouble for the West in the immediate future than it has been in the recent past.
[Photo by Flickr user World Economic Forum]