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Pussy Riot's pardon and the cynical politics of Vladimir Putin
This was a pretty crafty move
Just Putin's pawn?
Just Putin's pawn? (REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin)
O

n Monday, Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova were released from prison in Russia, after being pardoned by President Vladimir Putin under a new amnesty law his allies pushed through Russia's parliament. And just a day earlier, newly released prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former oil tycoon whose main crime seems to have been becoming a vocal Putin critic, gave his first news conference at the Checkpoint Charlie Museum in Berlin.

In announcing the surprise amnesty, Putin wasn't exactly magnanimous. "I feel sorry for Pussy Riot not for the fact that they were jailed, but for disgraceful behavior that has degraded the image of women," he said. And Putin only agreed to release Khodorkovsky after he agreed not to enter Russian politics or try to reclaim the assets of his former company, Yukos. At Germany's suggestion, Khodorkovsky was immediately flown out of Russia. Putin also agreed to pardon 30 Greenpeace activists nabbed while protesting a Russian oil rig at the Arctic Circle.

Putin's skipping of the niceties reinforces the most popular theory for his new embrace of amnesty: It is all about Putin and Sochi, not political reform or generosity.

"Putin's decision evinces political calculation — but very little mercy," says Monika Griebeler at Germany's Deutsche Welle. "On Feb. 7, in just over seven weeks, the Sochi Winter Olympics will begin," and everyone from German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier to the father of Pussy Riot's Tolokonnikova says the connection between the pardons and the games is obvious. Khodorkovsky alluded to the same thing on Sunday: "My release is a 'symbol' of the fact that the authorities and President Putin are seriously concerned about the image of Russia."

The Washington Post's Max Fisher elaborates. "Let's look at what these pardoned prisoners have in common: They are all pretty famous and are well-known particularly in the West," he notes. Putin has already proved his point to his intended domestic audiences: Don't cross me. And now he gets to undermine the global protesters, Fisher adds:

By making this high-profile concession to Western human-rights demands, Putin may well be hoping to undercut the planned diplomatic and commercial boycotts of Sochi.... International rights groups have spent a lot of energy drawing international attention to Khodorkovsky and Pussy Riot both because their cases were important in themselves but also because their cases were symbolic of Russia's larger issues. Now rights groups can't really point to those cases anymore. [Washington Post]

Another reason Putin didn't give up much: The two Pussy Riot members were set to be released in February anyway, after two years in prison, and Khodorkovsky only had eight months left, after being in jail for more than 10 years.

Fisher's Washington Post colleague Joshua Tucker, at the Monkey Cage blog, has other ideas about why Putin was smart to soften up his authoritarian image, ranging from game-theory explanations about keeping Western observers off-guard to Mandela-inspired legacy-building to simple realpolitik: Having opponents free — see blogger/politician Aleksei Navalny — lends an air of legitimacy to heavily tilted elections.

Soft power aside, Putin is probably worrying about the business of business. In this case, he sided with the part of his entourage "increasingly worried about Russia's worsening economic situation and its image abroad," says Arkady Ostrovsky at The Economist. But there's another faction that "believes that tightening the screws further and bringing in more repression is the only way to stay in power."

Putin made the right choice, and the effects will "go well beyond the immediate presentational demands of Sochi," says David Clark at Britain's The Independent. Putin rightly recognized "that the system he created to rescue Russia from post-Soviet decline has itself begun to exhibit signs of stagnation and needs to be reinvigorated if he wants to cement his legacy."

A few days before Putin announced his amnesty the World Bank again downgraded its 2013 growth forecast for Russia from 1.8 percent to 1.3 percent. Projected growth for 2014 was also revised down from 3.1 percent to 2.2 percent, well below the 6-7 percent that defined Russia's resurgence during Putin's first two presidential terms....

The reality behind these figures is that Russia needs huge new injections of capital and technology to modernize its energy sector, replace aging infrastructure and diversify into new areas of economic activity. With net capital outflows running at around $50 billion a year, this money can only be found by persuading more Russians that their wealth is safe at home while attracting significant new investments from abroad. Khodorkovsky's release may well have been intended to further those goals by sending a positive signal about Russia's future business climate. [Independent]

Self-interest aside, this is one of those decisions where all of the immediate players appear to come out ahead: After 10 years, Russia's most famous political prisoner is free (albeit in effective exile); the remaining jailed members of Pussy Riot are famous and out of jail; and Vladimir Putin got rid of a big distraction without, apparently, giving up much of anything.

Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian, and plays in an Austin rock band.

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