What Putin Gains From Khodorkovsky's Release

A few days ago, if you’d said Mikhail Khodorkovsky would be wondering around Berlin today, nobody would have believed you. The jailed Russian oligarch was not expected to be part of Putin’s pre-Sochi amnesty that freed other, less consequential, prisoners like the members of Pussy Riot. He had been in prison for more than 10 years, and while he was due to be released next year, there were always rumours that he would face a third trial.

But there he is, safely in Germany, a free man again.

And now everyone is trying to figure out the Russian governments PR strategy. You can be certain that Vladimir Putin’s supposedly off-the-cuff comments about Khodorkovsky’s release were carefully planned to maximise effect (as Miriam Elder of Buzzfeed notes, the comments were prompted by a question from a reporter from LifeNews, a tabloid publication close to the Kremlin). By announcing the release of a man widely taken to be his worse enemy in such a casual manner, Putin both made Khodorkovsky seem irrelevant, and presented himself as a benevolent leader: The good tsar.

Khodorkovsky’s release has overshadowed another Russian legal case — Yevgeny Vitishko, an environmental activist who has reported on the environmental fallout from construction for the $US51 billion 2014 Sochi Winter Games, was sentenced today to three years in jail, according to the Associated Press. Even if Putin’s amnesty wasn’t always designed as a PR move to promote Sochi, that timing would certainly seem fortuitousness.

The location of Khodorkovsky’s destination also seems relevant. While he had apparently traveled to Berlin to meet his parents (his elderly mother has cancer and had previously been getting treatment in Germany), both his mother and father were actually in Moscow. In the past, Khodorkovsky had indicated that he would stay in Russia after his release, and it’s not clear how long he intends to stay in Europe right now. The German authorities have said that former German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher worked “behind the scenes” to facilitate Khodorkovsky’s release. Those with curious minds can’t help but wonder if the release of Khodorkovsky might play a role in the fate of two Russian spies discovered in Germany earlier this year.

There’s even an American angle. The U.S. government was widely expected to add more names to a list of Russian human rights violators this year, commonly referred to as the Magnitsky list, but, according to a report from the Daily Beast’s Josh Rogin today, President Barack Obama has ruled out such an action.

Of course, it’s always tempting to look for grand narratives behind something like this, but it’s usually inadvisable, and who knows, maybe all these things are just coincidences. Even so, you have to marvel at a situation where Putin releases his worst enemy from jail and somehow ends up on top again.

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