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.