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Adrienne Warren

Rage Against the ‘Totalitarian Machine’: Putin Grants Freedom to Political Prisoners

Russian President Vladimir Putin has sent shockwaves into international news, after announcing the pardon, and subsequent release from prison, of former oligarch and Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Khodorkovsky, a former oil tycoon who was once Russia’s richest man, was released on humanitarian grounds. Other high profile political prisoners, punk band Pussy Riot, were separately released under an amnesty law passed last week aimed to free some 20,000 prisoners. But is a truly magnanimous act by Putin? Opinions are divided…

Dangerous Putin, author: Heart Industry, source: Flickr

Dangerous Putin, author: Heart Industry, source:Flickr

Mikhail Khodorkovsky created the “Open Russia” foundation, an NGO for freedom and democracy, in 2001. On October 25, 2003, Russian special forces arrested Khodorkovsy for alleged tax evasion, theft and fraud, for which he served 10 years in prison.

In his first press conference since his release, Mikhail Khodorkovsky fielded questions about what his future plans are, and his reaction to his imprisonment. After being asked what the ‘real’ reason behind his controversial imprisonment ten years ago was, the newly free man replied:

“I am not sure myself. I do not know at all.”

When asked whether he would like to enter the field of politics in Russia, Khodorkovsky answered:

“No. I want to look into the plight of political prisoners in Russia. I also want to contribute to the development of civil society to make life easier in Russia. I need more time to think about my future… I am going to stay away from power struggles. I want to deal with social issues. I have not yet had time to think about this issue more closely.”

And what about political prisoners beyond? For example, jailed ex-prime minister of Ukraine, Yulia Tymoshenko?

” I have ties with that area, because some of my family lives there. Yet, I do not have enough evidence to give an opinion on the current situation. Nevertheless, I hope that Yulia Tymoshenko will soon be released. At this point in time, president Yanukovych should follow Vladimir Putin’s example, and release her,” Khodorkovsky explained.

Khodorkovysky’s intention to enter the field of human rights activism was one which was also echoed by the two newly-released band members of Pussy Riot, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina. The women were jailed in August 2012 after performing a protest song in Moscow’s main cathedral. Both women emphasized that their anti-Putin stance had not been diminished while in jail, in fact, both have resolved to form a human-rights group to fight for prison reform. As Tolokonnikova explained the impact of her jail time:

“I saw the state from within, I saw this totalitarian machine as it is. Russia is built on a penal colony. That is why it is so important to change the prison system in order to change Russia.”

The two women dismissed the released under the newly passed amnesty law, calling it a publicity stunt before the Sochi Winter Olympics in February.

Let the theories begin…

Theories for why Putin decided to release high profile political prisoners are already abounding, with possible rationals ranging from Sochi, to Ukraine, to Nelson Mandela.  Joshua Tucker, of the Washington Post, explains what he believes could be some possible answers:

“Perhaps the simplest explanation for Putin’s pardon of Khodorkovsky – as well as Monday’s news that jailed members of the punk band Pussy Riot were also released as part of a larger amnesty — is that Putin is trying to remove any and all political distractions from the Olympics. As the AP puts it, such moves would be intended to ‘soothe criticism of Russia’s human rights record.’ While the simplest explanation, however, it is not the only one.”

So what other options are out there? Tucker continues:

“The Khodorkovsky pardon is of course not the first time this year that Putin has let a potential political rival out of jail unexpectedly.  Earlier this year, blogger and frequent Kremlin critique Aleksei Navalny quite shockingly was released from jail a day after being sentenced in a manner that allowed him to run for – and ultimately lose – the 2013 Moscow mayoral election.  By all accounts, having Navalny participate in these elections gave the race a degree of legitimacy it certainly would have lacked without him, but without costing the Kremlin control over the office.  Perhaps Putin has taken this an indication that more political competition in Russia could actually end up being beneficial for the regime, and that – despite Khodorkovsky’s statement Sunday that he will stay out politics – the decision to pardon him was made with this in mind.”

And let’s not forget Ukraine’s cautionary tale:

“The late political scientist Samuel Huntington long ago suggested that legitimate elections could function as a substitute for street protest among a disgruntled population, so perhaps it is not a coincidence that Khodorkovsky has been released after the outbreak of sustained and unexpected protests next door in Ukraine.”

Creating a lovable legacy could also be a possible cause, Tucker suggests:

“The Sochi Winter Olympics are widely being described as a key part of Putin’s ‘legacy’.  Like everybody else, Putin recently observed how Nelson Mandela’s legacy was praised throughout the world upon his death.  Putin has been president for a long time in Russia, and may end up being president for many years to come. It would not be surprising if the thought of his legacy has started to creep into his own decision making.  Now Putin has not been known as someone who really cares what the West or international human-rights agencies think about what he considers to be matters of internal Russian policy.  Perhaps — and I really stress perhaps — the experience of watching the world praise Mandela is causing him to rethink this conviction just a bit.”

 The ripple effect?

Could be that Ukrainian President is also watching his legacy, as news that the leader, still embroiled in nationwide protest, as also inked an amnesty bill this week.  The bill will release and rehabilitate those who were jailed during the on-going Euromaidan protests, which erupted after Ukraine announced it was backing out of a series of agreements it was tipped to sign with the EU at November’s Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius.

Update on Ukraine: 25 December 2013 & brutal reality

sources: BBC, Russia Beyond the Headlines, The Washington Post

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Graduated in International Relations and Russian. Resident of Estonia, but a citizen of the world. Most interested in contributing to the progress and education of mankind--as the primary tool of achieving global unity.

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