Why Putin's Release Of His Biggest Rival From Prison Is More Machiavellian Than It Sounds

Vladimir Putin APRussian President Vladimir Putin answers a question about Mikhail Khodorkovsky after his annual news conference in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013.

Today, at an annual four-hour Q&A session with national and foreign press, Vladimir Putin announced something no one was expecting.

The jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Putin said, had recently applied for a pardon. “His mother is ill,” Putin explained. “And I think that a decision can be made and the decree on the pardon will be signed in the nearest time.”

If Putin does sign the pardon, Khodorkovsky will be immediately eligible for release. That’s a huge deal. Khodorkovsky was once the richest man in Russia, and one of its most political ambitious. Following a series of clashes with Putin and members of the Russian president’s inner circle, however, he was arrested in October 2003. He has been in prison ever since, first on tax fraud charges and later on charges related to stealing money and oil. His plight has made him an international symbol of Putin’s ruthless streak and Russia’s corrupt judiciary system — Amnesty International declared him a prisoner of conscience in 2010, saying that the charges against him were “politically motivated.”

The timing of Putin’s announcement is astonishing — just yesterday he had agreed to a long rumoured amnesty that will free between 2,000 to 5,000 prisoners, including members of the punk rock troupe Pussy Riot. The Guardian wrote that the move seemed like a “classic PR masterstroke” ahead of Russia’s Sochi Winter Olympic Games next year, but to many, it felt like a dud. Human rights activists had asked Putin to release 30,000 people, and while Putin seems happy to pardon high profile he doesn’t personally see as a threat (Pussy Riot and Greenpeace activists, for example), the omission of Khodorkovsky and opposition activist Alexey Navalny made it seem like a token gesture .

It may seem strange that the Kremlin didn’t announce Khodorkovsky was part of the amnesty, but the timing here seems deliberate. For one thing, announcing it in a casual comment after his now notorious annual press session gives it the maximum impact. Another factor is that Khodorkovsky may be getting a pardon, but he is not necessarily part of the amnesty; instead, according to the Kremlin, he recently requested a pardon, something any prisoner can do. The big thing with requesting a pardon is that you are admitting your guilt to the crimes you allegedly committed. This would be a major change from Khodorkovsky, who has always maintained his innocence.

What would make Khodorkovsky change his tune? It may well be that his concerns over his mother’s health have caused him to reconsider his political fight — just last month he revealed that his mother, now 80-years-old, has cancer. But you also have to consider if he actually asked for a pardon at all. Putin claims that he has a letter signed by Khodorkovsky asking for a pardon, but Khodorkovsky’s own lawyers claim never to have heard of such a letter (they initially denied it outright, but have now withdrawn the denial until they talk to Khodorkovsky). Khodorkovsky’s son and unofficial spokesperson, Pavel, appears to have been taken by surprise by the announcement too (he declined an interview with Business Insider until he has spoken to his father).

There are more questions than answers here. What happens if Khodorkovsky comes out and says he didn’t write the alleged letter to Putin? Will Khodorkovsky have to refuse a pardon? He is due to be released next year anyway, what difference does six months really make?

Perhaps the most important question, however, is what will Khodorkovsky do if he is released from prison? While his son Pavel has encouraged him to flee the country and live a quiet life, it seems unlikely that a man as smart, determined, and — let’s face it — ruthless as Mikhail Khodorkovsky would happily retire to the sidelines of Russian politics. Putin no doubt knows that, just as he no doubt understands that putting Khodorkovsky on trial for the third time next year would be a disastrous PR move. Thus he has jumped ahead of the news in a move that is Machiavellian and classic Putin.

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