After Russian President Vladimir Putin's decision to pardon his arch foe Mikhail Khodorkovsky, much of the world is asking: "Why now?"
Putin clearly wants to clean up his human rights record before the Olympic Winter Games, which open in the southern Russian resort of Sochi in a mere seven weeks, and Khodorkovsky's decade-long imprisonment on what have been widely viewed as politically motivated charges was the most glaring blemish.
But the "why now?" question might better be asked of Khodorkovsky, who has stubbornly refused to bargain for his freedom with guilty pleas and mea culpas that the Kremlin has sought to legitimize its repression of the former oil tycoon in the eyes of the Russian public.
Putin said Thursday at a press conference in Moscow that Khodorkovsky had applied to him for clemency, a change in posture that the political prisoner's lawyer, Vadim Klyuvgant, said he knew nothing about.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov told the Interfax news agency that the reported request for a pardon showed that Khodorkovsky, after years of casting the charges against him as political repression, has "admitted his guilt."
[Updated, 10:15 a.m. PST, Dec. 20: In his first comment after release from prison Friday, Khodorkovsky said in a statement on his website that he had written to Putin on Nov. 12 to request a pardon "due to my family situation," apparently referring to his ailing mother undergoing treatment. He thanked his family, supporters and former German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, but said of Putin's clemency grant only that he was "glad his decision was positive." Khodorkovsky also pointedly stated that "the issue of admission of guilt was not raised" in his appeal for a pardon.]
Putin controls most media and can threaten or manipulate those still ostensibly independent, if Khodorkovsky attempts to take a defiant public stand against Putin. But stifling Khodorkovsky in the midst of the massive international media presence that will descend on Russia for the Feb. 7-23 Olympics may prove more difficult than the Kremlin leader imagines.
As the website notes, Khodorkovsky was imprisoned for 3,709 days, with 247 days left on his nine-year sentence for tax evasion. With his Yukos oil empire gobbled up by state-owned Rosneft while Khodorkovsky was in prison, the oligarch who was once Russia's richest man has little wealth or power to come back to.
The one asset that survived his Siberian exile and political repression is his reputation as someone who can and will challenge Putin's authority. Khodorkovsky was despised by many Russians as typical of the fat-cat businessmen of the post-Soviet era, but his years behind bars for supporting Putin political opponents has cleansed his image with supporters of other political forces crushed by the Kremlin.So why now? Khodorkovsky, barring new accusations of illegal dealings or demands for millions more in alleged back taxes, would have been free in August and able to retain his unrepentant stature as a victim of a megalomaniacal leader.
Western politicians, human rights advocates and Russia scholars were cautious in their praise of the announced decision to release Khodorkovsky, aware of what might be a fleeting incentive -- the Olympics -- for Putin to appear magnanimous.
[Updated, 10:15 a.m. PST Dec. 20: German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called the surprise announcement of the pardon a "good decision."
Khodorkovsky's imprisonment "has become symbolic of Russia’s culture of corruption, impunity and injustice under President Putin," said U.S. Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican.]
Andrew Foxall, director of the Henry Jackson Society Russia Studies Center in London, urged against "a rush to embrace the Russian leader, given ongoing and widespread human rights violations in his country."
"At first blush, the pardon for Khodorkovsky appears to be a rather canny move that will throw Putin’s critics off-balance in the runup to Sochi while sending a clear message of self-confidence to his domestic political opponents," said Andrew Weiss, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment, who called Thursday's announced pardon "a bombshell."
More than a sop to his foreign critics, Weiss argued, the pardon probably reflects the fact "that the general public in Russia remains almost completely uninterested in politics" and that the average person is convinced Putin will remain in power as long as he wants to.
Whether Khodorkovsky will docilely retreat from the media spotlight if he is freed remains to be seen, but would be out of character for the man who has refused for a decade to veer from his posture as a repressed rival.
But as the Moscow News noted on Twitter, speculation was rife in Moscow that the Kremlin's rumored plans to bring a third criminal case against Khodorkovsky before his August release date might have been the crowning blow that "broke" him.
A foreign correspondent for 25 years, Carol J. Williams traveled to and reported from more than 80 countries in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.