In just the past few days, Russia has significantly upgraded its record on human rights. It has announced amnesty for the 30 jailed Greenpeace activists who were arrested and accused of piracy after being seized on their ship, the Arctic Sunrise. It has said that Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, jailed members of the feminist punk collective Pussy Riot, could be released before the end of their sentences in March of next year. MPs in the Russian Duma have voted in favor of a wide-ranging amnesty for at least 20,000 prisoners including minors, disabled people, veterans, pregnant women and mothers.
To top off the show of clemency, Putin announced at his annual four-hour press conference in Moscow that he will pardon former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who has been imprisoned for a decade.
Analysts say that Putin appears to be making haste to clean up Russia’s human rights record ahead of February’s Winter Olympics, which will be held in the Black Sea resort of Sochi to defuse any diplomatic tensions prior to an event that Putin has made his pet project.
But anyone who thinks that there is something fundamentally different going on in Russia needs to think again. The timing of Putin’s clemency is perfect, occurring just enough before the winter games start to give any foreign officials vacillating about attending time to decide to show up in Sochi. In the weeks leading up to the winter games, media outlets will now be making many a mention about an apparent turnabout in the Kremlin.
Khodorkovsky — once the richest man in Russia as head of the now defunct oil giant Yukos — and his fellow defendant Platon Lebedev were convicted of stealing oil and laundering money in 2010 after they had already served time for tax evasion. Khodorkovsky, who supporters have long argued is a political prisoner, is to leave jail next August. Khodorkovsky’s lawyers and mother say that he had not mentioned anything about a request for clemency to them. As his mother Marina said to the Russian BBC, “I spoke to Mikhail last Saturday for about three minutes, but we did not discuss this. He only asked about my health.”
Look closely at Putin’s language and it is clear that he holds the cards and is controlling not only the situation but the message. The Kremlin is claiming that Khodorkovsky had made a request for clemency and that he himself had “signed” it. At his press conference, Putin said that he had never received such a request from the jailed businessman before. Noting that Khodorkovsky has been imprisoned for more than ten years already, Putin emphasized that “humanitarian circumstances” were the reason for the pardon.
In another show of magnanimity, Putin announced on Tuesday that Russia would give Ukraine a $15 billion bailout and discounts on natural gas as a “gesture of good will” to a “sister nation.” The deal is nothing less than a “lifeline” for Viktor F. Yanukovich, the Ukraine’s President who has been contending with an economy nearing crisis and, ever since he backed out of a proposed trade pact that would have brought his country closer to the European Union, has faced civil unrest in the form of thousands of protesters occupying Independence Square and key buildings in the capital of Kiev. Thanks to Russia’s bailout package, it is very unlikely that Ukraine will seek to revive the pact with the E.U. anytime soon.
Having granted temporary asylum to no one less than Edward Snowden, the former contractor for the National Security Agency who revealed the government’s pervasive and aggressive surveillance programs, Putin can be said to be racking up the foreign policy successes. He has certainly left European officials at an awkward loss with the bailout deal for Ukraine and you can expect he’ll be basking in Russia’s shining new human rights record at Sochi. It is well to remember that, as Luke Harding and Francesca Ebel write in the Guardian:
Since returning to the Kremin in 2012, Putin has presided over the worst clampdown on human rights since the Soviet period. The Duma has enacted new laws compelling non-governmental organizations that receive foreign funding to register as “foreign agents”. Opposition demonstrators who took part in anti-Putin protests face long stretches in jail. There have been show trials against a dead man – the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky who exposed massive official corruption, and died in prison in 2009 – and against the opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
A law banning “gay propaganda” and Putin’s overall harsh stance on gay rights have gained widespread global criticism. The Russian president has orchestrated this precisely as “part of a wider political strategy to shore up the Kremlin’s conservative base,” especially after the anti-government protests in 2011-2012 that were “largely centred on Moscow and led by the country’s restive middle classes.”
Khordorkovsky was indeed pardoned and released on Friday and is now in Germany. Alyokhina has been released from prison and given amnesty — which she has promptly called a “PR stunt” — and Tolokonnikova is also to be freed on Monday.What remains to be seen is what happens in Russia after Sochi and after the Greenpeace activists, Alyokhina, Tolokonnikova, Khodorkovsky and thousands of other prisoners are released (assuming that they are). At the first sign of dissent, will they again be placed into detention, sent to work camps and Putin’s propagandizing take on their beliefs all that is heard?