Why did Putin decide to release Khodorkovsky now?
In a surprise move, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin said Thursday that he would sign a pardon for jailed former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The oil tycoon was arrested in 2003 and later sentenced to nine years behind bars on embezzlement and tax evasion charges. In 2010, in a second case against him, Khodorkovsky’s was found guilty of large-scale theft of oil and money laundering and his sentence was prolonged. The former tycoon's 11-year jail term officially expires in August 2014.
Response to demands in society
By signing Khodorkovsky’s petition on a pardon, President Putin possibly responded to calls from many high-ranking Russian officials as well as liberal intelligentsia, political analyst Dmitry Babich suggests.
Throughout the trial of the former Yukos CEO, many top-level officials gave testimony in support of Khodorkovsky, he told RT.
“That was done by former Finance Minister Kudrin – he was still the finance minister at the time. That was done by former Economic Development Minister German Gref,” Babich recalled.
Also, “there were a lot of people among the Russian liberal intelligentsia who asked Putin to pardon Khodorkovsky before his term expires,” he went on. “So, Putin sort of responded to their letters", Babich added.
The analyst believes that if Khodorkovsky had filed his petition earlier, it would not have been “surprising” if Putin supported it.
“I absolutely don’t buy the western theory that Putin ‘is afraid’ of Khodorkovsky. I don’t believe that Khodorkovsky could be a viable alternative for Putin at a presidential election,” he said. “Russian people remember how fortunes were made in the nineties and, certainly, the richest men of the nineties would not inspire sympathy in too many Russians – maybe just in a limited circle of the richest Russians.”
Concerns that ‘fraudster, embezzler’ released early
Khodorkovsky has been in prison for a decade, but “his crimes were quite enormous” and it is unlikely that many “right-minded” people would see Russia in a better light upon his release, said Neil Clark, a journalist and broadcaster.
“There are some people saying that this is all about Sochi, about the Olympics, about President Putin trying to improve the image of Russia abroad. But I’m not sure if right-minded people might think that pardoning early a fraudster, an embezzler on a massive scale is actually going to see Russia in a better light, because most ordinary people around the world and Russians, of course, feel that Khodorkovsky got what he deserved,” Clark told RT.
In his view, it took the tycoon ten years to finally ask for a pardon, because he relished the role of 'prisoner of conscience'.
“Of course, he isn't a prisoner of conscience at all. Because he is a fraudster, he is an embezzler. But I think he relished this and he has become a sort of pin-up boy, if you like, for the western neocons and the Russophobes,” Clark believes. “If he had applied for a pardon earlier, it wouldn't have sort of gone along with the script that he was this wonderfully principled man who was in prison because of his political views, in prison by this evil president Putin who was this evil Stalinist dictator. So I think if he had applied, it wouldn't have gone along with this script, would it?”
Putin’s decision was announced just a day after he signed an amnesty law, which will see the release of Pussy Riot band members, who were handed jail time for their infamous ‘punk prayer’ in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral. Charges against the Greenpeace activists, crewmembers of the Arctic Sunrise vessel will also be dropped. The so-called Arctic 30 were facing hooliganism charges after their protest at Russian giant Gazprom oil rig on the Barents Sea.
“These people were protesters, they were principled protesters, whether you agree with them or not, they were actually protesting,” Clark said, adding that he welcomed the news.
“But Khodorkovsky was a different kettle of fish altogether. This man was part of a group of oligarchs who effectively stole billions of [dollars] from the Russian commonwealth in the 1990s, stole from the Russian people. This was probably one of the greatest financial crimes of the century. So, I think we can’t see this as a part of a trend. There was widespread international concern about the Arctic 30. There isn’t about Khodorkovsky. He is a fraudster. And I think that a lot of people will be concerned that he may be pardoned early, and that he's not going to see his full sentence out, even though we're only talking about a matter of months here.”
Khodorkovsky pardon – olive branch to Kremlin critics
It was Khodorkovsky’s decision “to go up against Putin” that resulted in him being sent to jail, said Ben Aris. When Putin came to power in 2000, “he made a pragmatic deal with the oligarchs and told them to stop stealing,” he said.
“As it happened, most of the oligarchs said ‘yes’,” he added. “The issue has never been whether Khodorkovsky should go to jail; the issue has been why all the oligarchs didn’t go to jail,” Aris told RT.
“Given that there was a fairly arbitrary decision to jail Khodorkovsky because they clashed politically, the decision to release him is equally arbitrary. It’s not necessarily a question of rule of law and wrongs and rights – everybody was stealing in the nineties. But it was Khodorkovksy’s decision to go up against Putin that landed him in jail.”
By signing the amnesty bill and now pardoning Khodorkovsky, Putin is sending two messages: one to international community and another one to the domestic audience, the analyst thinks.
“Internationally, the relations with the rest of the world have been deteriorating rapidly and are getting worse and worse. Perhaps, Putin with this is trying to put a stop to this or a marker to slow down the process and to hold out an olive branch to the rest of the world,” he said.
Inside the country, the government has been criticized a lot over the state of rule of law. Following the 2011 parliamentary elections and then the presidential vote in 2012, there was a rising protest movement with many alleging election violations.
“Given the events in Kiev in particular I think the Kremlin is acutely aware that they need to meet the opposition half-way or at least make some moves towards meeting their demands of a more responsible government,” Aris said.
Letting Khodorkovsky out of jail is perhaps “an olive branch to those people to say that the Kremlin is actually listening a bit closer to what the people want to see happen,” he added.
Pardon is ‘a mistake’, will create another Berezovsky
It is unlikely that the release of Khodorkovsky would make any difference for investors, asset manager Eric Kraus said.
“I don’t think foreign investors care very much. I think foreign journalists care. But people who are actually investing in Russia have learned to discount very deeply what they read in the press,” he said.
In Kraus’ opinion, the signing of the pardon was a mistake.
“I think by freeing Khodorkovsky, they create another Berezovsky – a multi-billionaire who is going to be conducting a campaign of denigration of Russia internationally,” he said.
Geopolitical analyst F. William Engdahl thinks that the West will interpret the move as a sign of weakness.
“First you have to understand the reason for the propaganda campaign on the gay rights issue, on the Khodorkovsky issue, on the Pussy Riot issue, and so on. There are attempts to isolate Russia and weaken her while at the same time it justifies the so-called new Cold War with missile defense in Poland, the Czech Republic, Turkey, etc,” he told RT. “I think some people in the Kremlin and President Putin misunderstand the nature of Western propaganda. They will invent issues if they don’t have them.”
PR attempt ahead of Sochi Olympics
Mark Sleboda, senior lecturer and researcher in International Relations and Security Studies at Mocow State University, suggested that Vladimir Putin’s latest moves – the amnesty and the pardoning of the former Yukos CEO are linked to the upcoming Winter Olympics that Russia will host in Sochi.
“This is probably PR attempt by the Putin Administration ahead of the Olympics to engender some good press coverage, some good will towards Russia,” he said. “But also, I think to deflect a little bit of tension and anger away from the EU and the US over their recent losing of the bidding war over the Ukraine with Russia.”