If vulnerability breeds paranoia, the feeling of strength can reverse it, and so it seemed to go on Thursday when the Russian President pledged to free his oldest enemy, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who has served 11 years behind bars. The announcement of his pardon came off the cuff, as an afterthought to President Vladimir Putin‘s annual press conference, a four-hour marathon that saw Putin at the peak of his game after a string of political triumphs. “He has already spent more than ten years in prison. That is a serious punishment,” Putin told a stunned pack of reporters. “In the near future, a decree will be signed to pardon him.” If he follows through, the Kremlin leader would show that he sees no danger to his rule – not even from the man with the moral and political clout to rally the disparate forces of Russia‘s opposition.
It was a shocking turnaround. For months, Russian media have been reporting that a new set of charges against Khodorkovsky was in the works, one that would keep him in prison well after his scheduled release next summer. Police were already questioning witnesses in relation to that case, and one of them, the liberal economist Sergei Guriev, fled to Paris this summer for fear getting mixed up in the imminent prosecution.
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So it was already a foregone conclusion in Russia’s political circles that Khodorkovsky, whom rights groups have labeled a “prisoner of conscience,” would not go free until after the parliamentary vote in 2016 and even the 2018 presidential elections, when Putin will be free to run for a fourth term in office. The risk of Khodorkovsky rallying the opposition in the lead up to those campaigns – or even running in them himself – seemed too great for the Kremlin to bear.
But Putin’s latest victories seem to have strengthened his stomach for risk. In the course of this year, he has beat out the West in a diplomatic duel over Syria, whose regime he has successfully defended against a U.S.-led military intervention. Just this week, he pulled Ukraine away from its integration deal with the E.U. and purchased the loyalty of Ukraine’s leadership with an economic bailout. His vision of rivaling the West with a new “Eurasian Union” of former Soviet states has turned from a political pipe dream into a reality, as Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine drew closer this year to joining Russia’s budding trade bloc with Belarus and Kazakhstan.
In February, Putin will see the greatest validation of his rule – the Winter Olympics in his beloved resort town of Sochi – and he has been getting prepared with a bit of political house cleaning. His aim was to avoid any Western boycott from soiling the mood of the Games, a risk that began to seem very real as U.S. President Barack Obama and several European statesmen announced this month that they would not be going to Sochi. So Russia has moved to preempt their criticism by cleansing its record on human rights. This week, the parliament approved a sweeping amnesty of Russian prisoners, including about a dozen activists who were jailed in connection with anti-Putin protests.
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All of them, including members of the performance art collective Pussy Riot, were put on trial at a time when Putin felt besieged. Early last year, claims of voter fraud sparked the biggest wave of street protests Putin has ever faced. Just as he prepared to take a third term as President last spring, opposition activists shattered the myth of his invincibility by bringing hundreds of thousands of protesters into the streets of Russian cities. They came out to demand Putin’s resignation. The state reacted with a series of show trials. Pussy Riot, which staged an anti-Putin protest in a Moscow cathedral in February 2012, were sentenced that summer to serve two years in prison for hooliganism, a punishment that Putin flippantly referred to as a “twosy.” More than two dozen activists and protesters where then put on trial in connection with a massive protest on the eve of Putin’s inauguration.
Khodorkovsky, too, was put in jail at a time of weakness for Putin. Once Russia’s richest man, Khodorkovsky led a group of powerful tycoons in trying to take back control of the country during Putin’s first term as President. The most influential of these oligarchs had eased Putin into power in 2000, assuming that the quiet KGB colonel would prove a loyal and pliable leader whom they could control from behind the scenes. They miscalculated his ambition. During Putin’s first years in office, he declared war on the oligarchs, including some of his former political benefactors, such as the billionaire Boris Berezovsky. One by one, he wrested control of Russia’s strategic industries from their hands, using the tools that have since become his favorite – the police, the prosecutors and the courts.
Finally, in 2003, Khodorkovsky was one of the last men standing, and he prepared to challenge Putin for the Presidency the following year. His resources – including Russia’s biggest oil company, Yukos, and a crew of loyal lawmakers in parliament – made him a formidable threat. So in the fall of that year, Khodorkovsky was arrested at gunpoint on the tarmac of a Siberian airport and charged with embezzlement. He has been in prison ever since.
But a lot has changed during that time. All of Russia’s billionaires have either pledged their loyalty to Putin or fled the country. All of Russia’s independent political parties have been marginalized or disbanded. Finally, this year, the West proved unable or unwilling to challenge Putin in the diplomatic arena. So at home and abroad, the Russian President, whose popularity ratings remain at a steady 60%, sees no danger to his rule. He can afford to show a bit of mercy.