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.
TEXT SIZE - +
— 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.

James Brooke

A foreign correspondent who has reported from five continents, Brooke, known universally as Jim, is the Voice of America bureau chief for Russia and former Soviet Union countries. From his base in Moscow, Jim roams Russia and Russia’s southern neighbors.

You May Like

Multimedia Anti-Keystone XL Protests Continue

Demonstrators are worried about pipeline's effect on climate change, their traditional way of life, health and safety More

Thailand's Political Power Struggle Continues

Court gave Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra until May 2 to prepare her defense over abuse of power charges but uncertainty remains over election timing More

Malaysia Plane Search Tests Limits of Ocean Mapping Technology

Expert tells VOA existing equipment’s maximum operating depth is around 6 kilometers as operation continues on ocean bed for any trace of MH370 More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
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.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Pet Kangaroo Helps Spread Environmental Messagei
X
Penelope Poulou
April 22, 2014 5:53 PM
Children’s author Julia Heckathorn travels the world to learn about different ecosystems and endangered animals. She pours her knowledge into children’s books, hoping the next generation will right the environmental wrongs of our times. As in many children's books, the main character in Heckathorn's stories is an animal. Unlike those other characters, though, this one is real - a kangaroo, that lives in the author’s backyard. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Pet Kangaroo Helps Spread Environmental Message

Children’s author Julia Heckathorn travels the world to learn about different ecosystems and endangered animals. She pours her knowledge into children’s books, hoping the next generation will right the environmental wrongs of our times. As in many children's books, the main character in Heckathorn's stories is an animal. Unlike those other characters, though, this one is real - a kangaroo, that lives in the author’s backyard. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Pro-Russian Separatists Plan 'Federalization Referendum' in Eastern Ukraine

Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine say they plan to move forward next month with a referendum vote for greater autonomy, despite the Geneva agreement reached with Russia, the U.S. and Ukraine to end the political conflict. VOA's Brian Padden reports from the city of Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine.
Video

Video Pope Francis Hopes Dual Canonizations Will Reconcile Church

On April 27, two popes - John the XXIII and John Paul II - will be made saints in a ceremony at St. Peter’s Square. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky says the dual canonization is part of the current pope’s program to reconcile liberals and conservatives in the Roman Catholic Church.
Video

Video In Capturing Nature's Majesty, Film Makes Case for Its Survival

French filmmaker Luc Jacquet won worldwide acclaim for his 2005 Academy Award-winning documentary "March of the Penguins". Now Jacquet is back with a new film that takes movie-goers deep into the heart of a tropical rainforest - not only to celebrate its grandeur, but to make the case for its survival. VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Boston Marathon Bittersweet for Many Runners

Monday's running of the Boston Marathon was bittersweet for many of the 36,000 participants as they finished the run that was interrupted by a double bombing last year. Many gathered along the route paid respect to the four people killed as a result of two bombings near the finish line. VOA's Carolyn Presutti returned to Boston this year to follow two runners, forever changed because of the crimes.
Video

Video International Students Learn Film Production in World's Movie Capital

Hollywood - which is part of Los Angeles - is the movie capital of the world, and many aspiring filmmakers go there in hopes of breaking into the movie business. Mike O'Sullivan reports that regional universities are also a magnet for students who hope to become producers or directors.
Video

Video Pacific Rim Trade Deal Proves Elusive

With the U.S.-led war in Iraq ended and American military involvement in Afghanistan winding down, President Barack Obama has sought to pivot the country's foreign policy focus towards Asia. One aspect of that pivot is the negotiation of a free-trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations. But as Obama leaves this week on a trip to four Asian countries he has found it very difficult to complete the trade pact. VOA's Ken Bredemeier has more from Washington.
Video

Video Autistic Adults Face Housing, Job Challenges

Many parents of children with disabilities fear for the future of their adult child. It can be difficult to find services to help adults with disabilities - physical, mental or emotional - find work or live on their own. The mother of an autistic boy set up a foundation to advocate for the estimated 1.2 million American adults with autism, a developmental disorder that causes communication difficulties and often social difficulties. VOA's Faiza Elmasry reports.
AppleAndroid