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Is Russia About to Free Pussy Riot?

Is Russia About to Free Pussy Riot?

Russia doesn’t know what to do about its political prisoners. 

To celebrate the upcoming 20th anniversary of the adoption of the Russian constitution in 1993, President Vladimir Putin agreed to free anywhere from 30,000 to a 100,000 prisoners charged with "non-violent" crimes. It would be the widest such amnesty the country has seen in two decades. But Russian officials are now going back and forth on the question of which high-profile convicts will receive amnesty. Rampant speculation has ensued about the fates of imprisoned oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the punk band Pussy Riot, a group of jailed Greenpeace protesters, and opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

The Russian parliament is likely to approve a draft of the legislation this week, but after a dizzying series of contradictory statements from the Russian authorities, very few implications of the legislation can be confirmed. On Dec. 4, Mikhail Fedotov of the Presidential Council on Human Rights caused a stir with a cautious admission that Khodorkovsky, who is serving an 11 year sentence for embezzlement and tax evasion, and the members of Pussy Riot, imprisoned for staging an anti-Putin protest at Moscow’s main cathedral, might be let free before their sentences are up. "Yes, I think so," Fedotov answered when asked about their release. Putin, however, was more hesitant, and on Friday, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev further hinted that neither the band nor the former oligarch would fall under the wide-ranging pardon. Following these comments, Fedotov changed his mind as well, saying on Friday that Khodorkovsky would not be exonerated as a result of the amnesty.

Vladimir Karza-Murza — the senior policy advisor at the Institute for Modern Russia, a think tank headed by Pavel Khodorkovsky, son of Mikhail — said that the amnesty would not include Russia’s better known dissidents, including the elder Khodorkovsky and Navalny. The contradictory statements and "allegedly positive signals," are aimed at keeping up people’s hopes, Karza-Murza told Foreign Policy. "They’re playing a game of good cop-bad cop." Ultimately, he added, there’s only one person who will decide the fate of the prisoners — Putin.

The pardon will be a second measure of the sort this year, following an "economic amnesty" in the summer, where 110,000 prisoners accused of white collar crimes were initially slated to be released, a number which was reduced by Putin and the parliament to 13,000. As of Dec. 5, only 1,500 prisoners had been discharged.

Next week’s legislation is said to allow for the release of certain groups of convicts: pregnant women, disabled prisoners, and veterans. Those with double convictions — Khodorkovsky, for example, was convicted in 2005 and 2010 — or those accused of "grave offenses," which includes white collar crimes such as fraud or embezzlement, would be excluded from the bill.

Based on these provisions, two of the Pussy Riot women who have small children could be released, according to Karza-Murza. Eight of the twelve Bolotnaya square protesters, who demonstrated against Putin a day before his May 2012 inauguration could also be freed. On Monday, the Russian newspaper Izvestia provided some support for those predictions, reporting that the initial draft of the legislation includes provisions allowing the release of mothers with little children and prisoners convicted under an article about hooliganism — which could point toward the release of the two Pussy Riot members, Greenpeace activists, and the Bolotnaya square protesters. But with the Russian government’s repeated change of heart on the issue of amnesty, nothing can be treated as a given.

On Friday, Prime Minister Medvedev said that the government would take into account "public opinion" and said that "our people are not inclined to provide amnesty to those who committed violent crimes, those who committed crimes against society, including hooliganism," a likely in reference to Pussy Riot. According to a Friday report by Russian newspaper Kommersant, Greenpeace activists, charged with hooliganism for staging a protest against oil exploration in the Arctic will not fall under the amnesty bill.

But while the Kremlin has strung up its opponents on invented corruption charges, very real corruption cases continue to haunt the government. On Friday, former Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov was charged with negligence in a case alleging that he ordered Russian soldiers to construct a highway at the government’s expense to his brother-in-law’s lavish dacha. Serdyukov is at the center of a multimillion dollar fraud scandal, and the amnesty law may serve as a convenient way for the Kremlin to make a hugely embarrasing problem go away. "They are imitating a fight against corruption," Karza-Murza said.

In a recent paper for the Legatum Institute, Peter Pomerantsev described the Russian democracy as a "a liquid, shape-shifting approach to power," where the government puts on an elaborate performance to maintain appearances of a functioning democratic state. Nowhere has this become more apparent than in its contortions over the amnesty bill, during which the government has changed its line as the situation requires.

Because in Russia, the show must go on.