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Sochi Watch: Why Tsar Putin Released His Arch-Nemesis

Sochi Watch: Why Tsar Putin Released His Arch-Nemesis

Like any good royal, Vladimir Putin couldn’t be bothered to make an act of clemency the main event of his Thursday press conference. Instead, he casually revealed at the end of the four-hour affair that he planned to pardon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the imprisoned former oil tycoon who came to be known as Putin’s number one foe.

Respectfully referring to Khodorkovsky by his patronymic name, "Mikhail Borisovich," Putin said that the oligarch had written to him with an appeal for pardon. "He has already spent more than 10 years behind bars, it’s a tough punishment. He is citing humanitarian reasons, his mother is ill. Taking all this into account it is possible to make the decision," Putin said.

Less than 24 hours later, Khodorkovsky, who had been serving a ten year sentence for fraud and embezzlement, boarded a chopper for St. Petersburg and was later spirited to Berlin, where he would be reunited with his family.

Putin’s shocker of a statement resulted in public relations mayhem in the Khodorkovsky camp. "Regardless of the circumstances of the pardoning (including the possible family reasons), the pardoning of Mikhail Khodorkovsky is a huge positive step for Russia. Congratulations to everyone who waited so long for this day," Vladimir Karza Murza, senior advisor at the Institute of Modern Russia, a think tank run by Khodorkovsky’s son, Pavel, told Foreign Policy by email Thursday.

Many news outlets reported that neither Khodorkovsky’s lawyer, nor his family were aware of the pardon request. One of his lawyers, Vadim Klyuvgant told the RAPSI news agency Thursday that Khodorkovsky "did not apply [for a pardon] and we have no information that anyone has applied on his behalf recently."

In a strange twist, his team then backtracked on that statement. "Until his legal team can meet with Mikhail Khodorkovsky, it cannot be commented on whether a request on a pardon was made, by whom and for what reasons," read a statement on Khodorkovsky’s web page.

On Friday, Khodorkovsky himself released a statement saying that he asked Putin on Nov. 12 to pardon him "due to [his] family situation" — a reference to his ailing mother — and that he was "glad his decision was positive."

As with anything in this case — or Russian politics in general for that matter — it can be difficult to distinguish the difference between hard facts and calculated disinformation. With a stellar legal team behind him and deep pockets with which to pay them, why would Khodorkovsky’s lawyers ever be confused on such a simple, essential question? Over at the New Republic, Julia Ioffe reports that anonymous reports in the Russian press hinted that the decision to pardon Khodorkovsky, arguably Russia’s most prominent political prisoner, was hammered out in private meetings between the former oil magnate and representatives of the security services. That would certainly account for the confusion among Khodorkovsky’s legal team, but it may be little more than unfounded speculation.

Regardless of how the deal came about, the move has been widely interpreted as a bid for some positive publicity before next year’s Olympic games in Sochi. "He played this card beautifully," British journalist and Russia expert Peter Pomerantsev told Foreign Policy

According to Pomerantsev, Putin’s move should be seen as carrying two different messages, the content of which depends on the audience. Internationally, the timing was perfect. "It’s a nice thing to do before the Olympics," said Pomerantsev. At home, however, Khodorkovsky’s release serves as yet another show of Putin’s absolute power. Like a king graciously pardoning his victim, the message he is sending in Russia is one of unrelenting control. By releasing a man once seen as a main rival, he shows that he is no longer fazed by Khodorkovsky. "I broke this man," he seems to be saying, according to Pomerantsev.

But even if Putin would like to spin Khodorkovsky’s release as a pure demonstration of his stranglehold on Russian politics, that isn’t entirely true. Russia has in recent months come under intense scrutiny for its human rights record, in particular because of a crackdown on its gay minority. That scrutiny has been amplified by the Sochi Olympics, which a litany of world leaders have now declared they won’t attend. It’s a painful snub that Putin would like to avoid. In the words of Masha Gessen, the release of Khodorkovsky came because "the prospect of standing alone [at Sochi], or only with the president of Ukraine for company, began to look real for the first time." That’s a scene the image-conscious Putin would never countenance. As a result, the argument goes, he moved to release Khodorkovsky and win some favorable headlines in the Western media.

That calculation may have been spurred in part by the Obama administration’s decision to send an insultingly low-profile delegation to Sochi, which will be headed by a former director of the Department of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano. No cabinet level official will be attending, and President Obama will be staying away. (It does include a handful of prominent gay athletes in defiance of Russia’s anti-LGBT laws.) French President Francois Hollande won’t be in attendance either, and the guest list of heads of state will now be more notable for who will be in attendance rather than those who choose to stay away.

So who would want to stand next to Putin on the dais? The Russian president would like to make that prospect slightly more appetizing, which may have led him to release the jailed oil baron. The timing indeed seemed auspicious — but then, Putin never appeared to care all that much what the Western world thought about him. "When it comes to certain core things, especially things on which the West pressures him, Putin will demonstrably, theatrically not give a fuck," Ioffe writes. For an example of that mentality, look no further than Syria and Edward Snowden.

Arguing that the release of Khodorkovsky was a direct result of Obama’s decision not to watch a hockey match or a bobsled competition is undoubtedly a stretch. But Putin is not Kim Jong Un — a dictator isolated from the rest of the world with few friends aside from Dennis Rodman. He is a leader who has to deal with his partners around the world and one that deeply cares about his image.

One look at the photos of Putin shirtless astride a horse, tells you all you need to know. This is a man who wants to project a certain image to Russia and the world — one of strength, virility, and independence.

Having all your most popular friends refuse to come to your party doesn’t mesh with that image.