News / Europe

Putin's Amnesties: Political Thaw or PR Stunt?

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.
James Brooke
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.
  • A combination photo shows Pussy Riot members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (L) and Maria Alyokhina (R) speaking to the media after they were released from prison, Dec. 23, 2013. 
  • Nadezhda Tolokonnikova gestures as she leaves prison in Krasnoyarsk, Russia, Dec. 23, 2013. 
  • Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova speaks to the media after she was released from prison in Krasnoyarsk, Russia, Dec. 23, 2013. 
  • Maria Alekhina speaks to the media at the Committee Against Torture after being released from prison in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, Dec. 23, 2013. 
  • Maria Alyokhina, member of Russian punk band Pussy Riot, and her lawyer, Pyotr Zaikin, arrive at the offices of rights group Committee Against Torture after her release from a penal colony in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, Dec. 23, 2013. 
  • Varvara Tolokonnikova, grandmother of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, shows family photos of Nadezhda at her apartment, as she waited for her granddaughter's release from prison, Dec. 21, 2013. 

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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Comment Sorting
by: John
December 28, 2013 7:20 AM
Greenpeace is, in effect, an arm of the Russian state. Greenpeace has destroyed the coal and nuclear industries in Europe, and left the EU dependent on Russian gas. Remember Schroeder, instrumental in achieving this, rewarded with a nice cushy sinecure in Gazprom. The other releases are merely a means to cover up the necessary release of the activists vital to the economic well-being of Russia.

by: William from: UK
December 24, 2013 8:07 AM
Yes, Putin is the better man to run Russia, the rest of the world aka USA and the UK have big problems with their own economies and would very much enjoy strippi g Russia of its assets. All this news on pussy riot .... The press must think the public (especially the UK) is really dumb. The UK is heading towards disaster with its own economy, it will be interesting to see how it will cope when the EU will apply a transaction tax. The UK applies its own tax on transactions happening in the city of London. This tax adds nearly 30% to the UK GDP. They receive this tax as they are supposed to act as police men in the city of London and banks transaction. The UK have allowed many transactions through that could be questionable just so they do not have a drop in GDP. So all this about pussy riot is only a smoke screen.

by: duncan from: londom
December 24, 2013 7:08 AM
Gosh the UK and US go on and on about pussy riot. Putin has a very big country to run and he is trying to look after all his people not just the rich. Putin is doing a very good job. How would the USA feel were he to keep badgering them on their human rights and the way they do things. Both the US and UK are using Russia as a distraction. If they had their way they would strip Russia of all its oil and other assets then go out of their was so as we never read about Russia in the press again. Pussy Riot are puppets and it is the USA pulling the strings. Pussy riot are a disgrace.

by: Eric from: USA
December 23, 2013 5:51 PM
Putin wants to put on a pretty face!!DO NOT TRUST!!

by: Anarcissie from: NYC, U$$A
December 23, 2013 4:09 PM
Putin can afford to be generous. He defeated the US in the Iran games, the Syria games, and apparently in the Ukraine games. The pardons or amnesties are neither a thaw nor a publicity stunt; they are a celebration.

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