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Putin's Amnesties: Political Thaw or PR Stunt?

  • James Brooke

Russian President Vladimir Putin takes part in a meeting on social and economic development in Moscow's Kremlin, Dec. 23, 2013.

Russian President Vladimir Putin takes part in a meeting on social and economic development in Moscow's Kremlin, Dec. 23, 2013.

On Friday, it was President Vladimir Putin’s archnemesis, Mikhail Khodorkovsky. On Monday, it was two women from the Pussy Riot protest group. Later this week, it could be the turn of Greenpeace activists to fly to freedom.

Snow covers much of Russia in December, but some people are asking: are we seeing a political thaw in Putin’s Russia?

Olympic charm offensive

Carnegie Moscow analyst Masha Lipman said no. She tied the release of Russian political prisoners to the Winter Olympics, which Russia will host in six weeks.

“In the months leading to the Sochi Olympics, Russia was facing a stream of negative publicity,” said Lipman. “And it seems this was becoming a matter of concern for the Kremlin, especially as leaders of very important countries - such as the United States, and France, and now, Britain - said they were not coming.”

The jailing of the Greenpeace activists and of the Pussy Riot performers provoked protests across Europe and the United States. The 26 foreign Greenpeace activists came from 18 different countries, a multinational mix that guaranteed world press attention. They are now out on bail, but hoping that an amnesty will free them from charges stemming from their protest two months ago near Russia’s sole offshore oil rig in the Arctic.

Despite the releases, foreign sales of Olympics tickets are soft, and major foreign leaders are not lining up to attend the February 7 opening ceremonies.

“The releases of Khodorkovsky and the Pussy Riot women were meant, at least in part, as elements of a charm offensive. It is not working so easily and so promptly,” said Lipman.

Khodorkovsky fallout

For Russian politics, the big fish was Khodorkovsky.

For the last decade, he has been seen as a political rival to Vladimir Putin. Once Russia’s richest man, Khodorkovsky had started to build a political base and to promote democracy, just when Putin was starting to take Russia down its current authoritarian path.

“He grew just so big, so influential, an actor with such influence, that he became a rival to the state itself,” said Lipman.

Now in exile in Germany, Khodorkovsky said he does not want to return to politics.

Politics of economics?

Indeed, Tony Brenton, a former British ambassador to Russia, said Khodorkovsky’s release had less to do with politics, and more to do with economics.

From Britain, he said “Liberals in the admin have been saying to Putin, ‘Look, economic growth has fallen quite dramatically. One reason why that has happened is because Western investors, outside investors, are put off by lots of things in our system. The symbol of what is wrong with the system, the symbol of the pliable judicial system and the predatory state, is Khodorkovsky,’” said Brenton.

Inside Russia, Khodorkovsky’s release has been hailed by economic modernizers, such as former finance minister Alexei Kudrin, a close friend of Putin.

Brenton does not believe that Khodorkovsky’s release means that President Putin plans to move Russia to a more competitive political system. He predicts that controls on dissent will remain in place.

“They can put on a rather good façade of running a democracy, but I don’t believe there is really any intention that it be any more than a façade,” said Brenton who served as ambassador here until 2008.

Indeed, many analysts believe that by releasing his archrival, Putin is sending out a signal that he feels secure in power.

Carnegie’s Lipman said of Russia’s leader: “As a monarch, he demonstrated he has the right to punish - and to pardon.”

Khodorkovsky, the Pussy Riot protesters, and the Greenpeace activists are expected to keep criticizing Russia’s authoritarian system. But, President Putin evidently feels confident to sail on by, without changing course.

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