Thanks, Putin, But No Thanks: Few Are Grateful for Russia’s Pre-Olympic Amnesty

Russian President Vladimir Putin grabbed international headlines last week with a pre-Christmas amnesty that included the release of a number of prominent dissidents. Those freed aren't exactly glowing with praise for Putin, though

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Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters

Maria Alyokhina, center, of Russian band Pussy Riot arrives at Moscow's Kursky railway station on Dec. 23, 2013

It was an awkward debate for Russia’s dissidents and the Western politicians who support them. Should they thank President Vladimir Putin for the massive amnesty that freed Russia’s most famous political prisoners over the past week? Or was the attempt to whitewash Russia’s record on human rights in time for the Olympic Games in Sochi too brazen to deserve any gratitude? In the coming weeks, as world leaders decide whether or not to boycott the Sochi Games in February, this question is sure to muddy the debate. And that is exactly what Putin seems to have intended.

From the timing of the amnesty that much was clear. Just days after the U.S. President and Vice President joined the growing number of Western leaders who will not be going to Sochi, Putin moved to take the wind out of their criticism of his government. His most shocking gesture was the release this weekend of his political nemesis Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former oil tycoon whom rights groups considered a “prisoner of conscience” for the decade he spent behind bars. A few days earlier, the Russian parliament approved an amnesty for thousands of other prisoners, including many of those charged in connection with anti-Putin protests over the past two years. On Monday, two members of the performance-art collective Pussy Riot, who outraged Putin with their protest in a Moscow cathedral last year, were released after serving roughly 20 months for the crime of hooliganism.

But none of them rushed to thank the man who granted them their freedom. He was, after all, also the man they see as having taken it away. “It is very difficult for me to say that I am grateful to Vladimir Putin,” Khodorkovsky told a press conference on Sunday in Berlin, where he flew immediately after his release to reunite with his family. He added, “I am glad of his decision” to grant the pardon. But even among the ranks of Khodorkovsky’s supporters, that grudging tone proved controversial. His press conference, which was held at a historical museum in Berlin, was interrupted by booing and jeers when the museum’s director thanked Putin, among others, for allowing Khodorkovsky to go free.

Few people would have more reason to sympathize with those jeers than Pavel Ivlev. Back in 2003, he was working as a lawyer for Khodorkovsky’s oil company, Yukos, when Putin initiated the legal onslaught against that company and its executives, who had begun to challenge the Kremlin’s rule. Ivlev was among the first to be called in for interrogation and, he claims, faced threats of violence when he refused to bear false witness against his colleagues in court. That same night, Ivlev fled the country, and he has since become a vocal critic of Putin’s government from his exile in the U.S. But after the recent amnesty, a bit of gratitude was nonetheless in order, he says. “I would have thanked him,” he tells me by phone from Colorado, soon after his former boss walked free. “Of course he is still an awful scumbag for doing all of this in the first place. But in this specific instance, for this specific act, Putin deserves some thanks.”

Other activists felt no such obligation. Until last week, Maria Baronova was on trial for “inciting mass unrest” in Moscow. On the eve of Putin’s inauguration in May 2012, she helped organize a massive opposition rally that ended in violent clashes between protesters and police. As part of the pre-Olympic amnesty, all charges against her were dropped. “The only thing Putin did for me is provide a hard lesson about his tolerance for dissent,” she tells me by phone from Moscow. “But I will not thank him for this blatant attempt to clean up his image. It is a propaganda ploy, not an act of goodwill.”

Her fellow activists from Pussy Riot went even further. Maria Alyokhina, one of the group members freed on Monday, said if she had been given a choice, she would have refused the amnesty to deprive Putin of any political dividends he stands to gain from her release. So far, the value of those dividends remains uncertain. The Presidents of Germany and France have already announced their decisions not to attend the Sochi Olympics, dealing a blow to the event on which Putin has staked his public reputation. Considering the “obvious human-rights violations” in Russia, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said last week it is “politically impossible” for her to attend the Games. But that was before Putin took such drastic steps to sanitize his human-rights record. And whether or not the beneficiaries of his amnesty are willing to thank him for it, their freedom will make it a lot harder to justify boycotting the Sochi Olympics. For that, Putin will have himself to thank.

10 comments
di2000
di2000

When countries have no diplomatic leverage (because their own human right situation is far worst than the one of the country they would like to criticize), they can only call for olympic boycott

sridhar.sid
sridhar.sid

Putin and Russia must learn to act and behave like a World Power. What we have witnessed is petty and ole style Soviet politics that Russia must shelve, if the World has to take Russia seriously. In recent months, thanks to his able Foreign Minister, Putin has gained the admiration of the world for creative diplomacy with Syria and Iran. Now, Putin wants desperately to showcase Sochi and hence indulging in some theatrics. What one expects from Russia is conduct that shows that they are ready for a post-Soviet era, where Russia rises above the Stalin style behavior

Sibir_Russia
Sibir_Russia

It will be nice if the U.S. establishes a moratorium on the death penalty for PR, for any reason or without. At least a moratorium on executions of juvenile children.

Would be even better if the USA as a PR also close Guantanamo and other similar prison.

ChrisPuccio
ChrisPuccio

Just wanted to say ZeeFlynn seems especially able to see and verbalize what seem like excellent insights into the  psych of this man. I liked the part where he said in another life he would just a belligerent drunk in some local dive forever picking fights to "prove something."..My friend has always said countries usually get the kind of leader they deserve. Someday, one would hope, the Russian people will start demanding more from their elected leaders. Having said that, I am ever aware we elected Nixon twice, Clinton twice, Bush twice and Obama twice. A crook, a man who didn't know what sex was, a idiotic coach, and a velvety smooth talker seemingly happy to go through life offering vague sound bytes addressing vague issues instead of the kind of inspiration Kennedy seemed to be able to generate. Clearly even in this country exceptional political leadership is a rare commodity. I can't wait to see our next act. Maybe having a woman president will  be the best next thing to shake up and wake up American political thought. Doesn't seem like Hilary could hurt after our experiences with these other... leaders.

SonTran
SonTran

I thinks it's much better that Human Rights Watch , Greenpeace ,Gay associations should campaign to urge athletics of all countries that have members prosecuted by Russian government ,gay athletics to individually boycott Sochi olympic rather government level.

The things that Putin has been worring most is MONEY and Russian populace 's trust and confidience on him rather than  his reputation or image to the outside world . 

ZeeFlynn
ZeeFlynn

Poor little Putin, a tough gangster on the surface but in reality a small, weak, easily frightened man trying hard to compensate for his lack of manhood and repressed sexuality.  [Simple psychological theory has proven the vast bulk of gay bashers are really feverishly trying to deny their own similar feelings,.  It's very obvious Vlad is no exception to this rule.]  Despite everything he does the world knows he is a gutless coward hiding behind his little throne.  In another life he'd be just another belligerent drunk in any local dive, trying forever to pick fights to "prove something".  Unfortunately this little man lucked into some power and too many decent people will continue to pay a price for his mental illness being transferred on the world around him.  The world will celebrate his fall from power.  It can't happen soon enough.  But it will definitely happen eventually.      

twofacedcallout
twofacedcallout

@di2000No one could have a "worst" human rights situation than the illegitimate "government" of the so-called "Russian Federation".  A rogue state governed by a butcher.  Sochi will be a joke, a fiasco and a disaster, no matter what your Idol does. 

twofacedcallout
twofacedcallout

@sridhar.sidYou're clearly in denial of reality in Russia after all that has happened there in the past 15 years along with their actions overseas.  We are already in Cold War 2, but Obama wants to pretend otherwise. 

twofacedcallout
twofacedcallout

@Sibir_RussiaYou first, you were the ones that invented gulags and when you can't do that then you murder women journalists in their apartment hallways or put plutonium into people for an agonizing deaths.  POS Russian.  You'll get yours too. 

twofacedcallout
twofacedcallout

@ZeeFlynnI hope you're right and your analysis of him is that of a 21st century Slavic Hitler.  Even worse since he has much greater resources, technology and propaganda techniques at his disposal.  I too hope he and those around him end up like Mussolini.  Hanging dead by their toes in the public square.