News / Europe

    Behind Putin’s Surprise Release of Khodorkovsky: Sochi and Self-Confidence?

    Russian President Vladimir Putin smiles as he takes part in a televised news conference in Moscow, Dec. 19, 2013.
    Russian President Vladimir Putin smiles as he takes part in a televised news conference in Moscow, Dec. 19, 2013.
    James Brooke
    Two weeks ago, Russian prosecutors told reporters they were preparing a third case against Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Russian oil tycoon who had already spent a decade in jail.

    Then, unexpectedly, President Vladimir Putin on Friday pardoned the man who was once his biggest political rival. Within hours, Khodorkovsky received a foreign travel passport, was whisked by helicopter from his penal colony near the Arctic Circle, and flown by private plane to Berlin.

    Why did Putin suddenly release a man long seen as Russia’s most prominent political prisoner?

    Ben Aris, executive editor in Moscow for Business New Europe, a financial magazine, said Russia’s president is preparing the country for the spotlight, as the world is about to descend on Sochi for the Winter Olympics.

    “Mr. Putin wants to present the best of the face of Russia to the future, to encourage people: ‘Here is the new Russia, we are growing, and we are emerging as an economic power in Europe. And we want to deal with you, on a commercial basis at least,’” said Aris.

    'Christmas amnesties'

    Khodorkovsky is the most prominent of what are known here as “the Christmas amnesties.”  By January 7, Russian Orthodox Christmas, Russia’s new amnesty law is expected to free from jail two women from the punk rock band Pussy Riot and drop charges against the 30 people arrested aboard a Greenpeace ship following a protest in the Russian Arctic last September.

    Chris Weafer, a partner with Macro-Advisory, a Moscow-based investment consultancy, said Putin is trying to remove high-profile irritants with the West.

    “A great focus from the Kremlin over the next couple of months is to try and project a more positive image, to deflect some of the criticism that has been coming its way, for this year and for many years,” he said from London.

    With Russia’s economy stagnating, the Kremlin may feel it is paying a high price for constantly irritating the West. Two years ago, Putin campaigned for election promising 5 percent annual growth; but, growth this year and next year is forecast to be around 1.3 percent.

    While foreign investment levels have fallen, domestic capital flight from Russia continues at a high rate. This year, capital flight is to hit $75 billion - making for a total exodus of $400 billion since the recession of 2008.

    Khodorkovsky was the richest man in Russia when he was jailed and his oil company taken over by the state. The impact on foreign investors was big.

    Drawing investors

    Of Khodorkovsky's release Friday, Aris said, “It is hugely significant, since he has come to personify a lot of the problems that investors have, or face, when they come to do business with Russia. It’s the insecurity, the lack of property rights, and the fear that you have your assets taken away by the state if you fall afoul of the government.”
    Weafer sees it only as a step down the road to the rule of law, greater protections for private property, and cutting bureaucratic controls,

    “This does not in any way change the investment climate,” he said. “This is not going to result in investors queuing up with their checkbooks to invest in the economy - absolutely not.”

    In 2003, when Khodorkovsky was jailed, Putin believed the businessman was building a political base to challenge him. Since then, Khodorkovsky consistently criticized Russia’s president in newspaper articles and interviews. He charged that Putin was needlessly dragging Russia down an authoritarian road.

    At the same time, public attitudes in Russia gradually shifted, from seeing Khodorkovsky as a 1990s robber baron, to respecting him for spending years in jail and sticking to his principles. Now Khodorkovsky is out of jail and has access to the part of his fortune that he had moved overseas.

    Aris said he believes that Putin’s decision to release Khodorkovsky reflects “how confident Putin now feels in terms of running the country.”

    “The fact that he is willing to let someone, who could turn out to be a major and well-funded political enemy, to let him out of jail,” demonstrates Putin’s political self-confidence. Skeptics note, that barring a third trial, Khodorkovsky would have to have been released from jail next August, the end of his term.

    Praising release

    On Friday, Russia’s democratic opposition hailed Khodorkovsky's release.

    Lyudmila Alexeyeva, who heads the Moscow Helsinki Group, told Interfax on Friday, "I am convinced that Mikhail Borisovich is well-equipped to play the role of a spiritual leader who will provide moral guidance. No matter what Mikhail Borisovich decides to do, he will become an unconditional spiritual leader, whom our society needs so urgently. Gandhi, Sakharov and Havel were such leaders."

    After his release, Khodorkovsky released a statement from Germany saying that his top priority is to rejoin his family.

    Weafer recalls similar statements in recent years. “He intended to live a quiet life. He did not want to get involved in politics. He did not want to be any sort of opposition figurehead.”

    Khodorkovsky turned 50 last June. Many here believe that after a year or two, he will be drawn back into politics, lending his prestige and financial resources to Russia’s largely leaderless democratic opposition.

    You May Like

    Syrian Rebel Realignment Likely as al-Qaida Leader Blesses Split

    Jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra splits from al-Qaida in what observers dub a ‘deception and denial’ exercise

    New India Child Labor Law Could Make Children More Vulnerable

    Concerns that allowing children to work in family enterprises will push more to work

    What Take-out Food Reveals About American History

    From fast-food restaurants to pizza delivery, the history of take-out food explains a lot about the changes taking place in society

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Uganda Unveils its First Solar-powered Busi
    X
    July 28, 2016 4:16 AM
    A solar-powered bus described by its Ugandan makers as the first in Africa has made its public debut. Kiira Motors' electric bus, Kayoola, displayed recently at a stadium in Uganda's capital. From Kampala, Maurice Magorane filed this report narrated by Salem Solomon.
    Video

    Video Uganda Unveils its First Solar-powered Bus

    A solar-powered bus described by its Ugandan makers as the first in Africa has made its public debut. Kiira Motors' electric bus, Kayoola, displayed recently at a stadium in Uganda's capital. From Kampala, Maurice Magorane filed this report narrated by Salem Solomon.
    Video

    Video Silicon Valley: More Than A Place, It's a Culture

    Silicon Valley is a technology powerhouse and a place that companies such as Google, Facebook and Apple call home. It is a region in northern California that stretches from San Francisco to San Jose. But, more than that, it's known for its startup culture. VOA's Elizabeth Lee went inside one company to find out what it's like to work in a startup.
    Video

    Video Immigrant Delegate Marvels at Democratic Process

    It’s been a bitter and divisive election season – but first time Indian-American delegate Dr. Shashi Gupta headed to the Democratic National Convention with a sense of hope. VOA’s Katherine Gypson followed this immigrant with the love of U.S. politics all the way to Philadelphia.
    Video

    Video Philadelphia Uses DNC Spotlight to Profile Historic Role in Founding of United States

    The slogan of the Democratic National Convention now underway in Philadelphia is “Let’s Make History Again” which recognizes the role the city played in the foundation of the United States in the 18th century. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, local institutions are opening their doors in an effort to capitalize on the convention spotlight to draw visitors, and to offer more than just a history lesson.
    Video

    Video A Life of Fighting Back: Hillary Clinton Shatters Glass Ceiling

    Hillary Clinton made history Thursday, overcoming personal and political setbacks to become the first woman to win the presidential nomination of a major U.S. political party. If she wins in November, she will go from “first lady” to U.S. Senator from New York, to Secretary of State, to “Madam President.” Polls show Clinton is both beloved and despised. White House Correspondent Cindy Saine takes a look at the life of the woman both supporters and detractors agree is a fighter for the ages.
    Video

    Video Dutch Entrepreneurs Turn Rainwater Into Beer

    June has been recorded as one of the wettest months in more than a century in many parts of Europe. To a group of entrepreneurs in Amsterdam the rain came as a blessing, as they used the extra water to brew beer. Serginho Roosblad has more to the story.
    Video

    Video First Time Delegate’s First Day Frustrations

    With thousands of people filling the streets of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for the 2016 Democratic National Convention, VOA’s Kane Farabaugh narrowed in on one delegate as she made her first trip to a national party convention. It was a day that was anything but routine for this United States military veteran.
    Video

    Video Commerce Thrives on US-Mexico Border

    At the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia this week, the party’s presumptive presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, is expected to attack proposals made by her opponent, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Last Friday, President Barack Obama hosted his Mexican counterpart, President Enrique Peña Nieto, to underscore the good relations between the two countries. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Tucson.
    Video

    Video Film Helps Save Ethiopian Children Thought to be Cursed

    'Omo Child' looks at effort of African man to stop killings of ‘mingi’ children
    Video

    Video London’s Financial Crown at Risk as Rivals Eye Brexit Opportunities

    By most measures, London rivals New York as the only true global financial center. But Britain’s vote to leave the European Union – so-called ‘Brexit’ – means the city could lose its right to sell services tariff-free across the bloc, risking its position as Europe’s financial headquarters. Already some banks have said they may shift operations to the mainland. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
    Video

    Video Recycling Lifeline for Lebanon’s Last Glassblowers

    In a small Lebanese coastal town, one family is preserving a craft that stretches back millennia. The art of glass blowing was developed by Phoenicians in the region, and the Khalifehs say they are the only ones keeping the skill alive in Lebanon. But despite teaming up with an eco-entrepreneur and receiving an unexpected boost from the country’s recent trash crisis the future remains uncertain. John Owens reports from Sarafand.
    Video

    Video Migrants Continue to Risk Lives Crossing US Border from Mexico

    In his speech Thursday before the Republican National Convention, the party’s presidential candidate, Donald Trump, reiterated his proposal to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border if elected. Polls show a large percentage of Americans support better control of the nation's southwestern border, but as VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from the border town of Nogales in the Mexican state of Sonora, the situation faced by people trying to cross the border is already daunting.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora