Punish and pardon

By freeing jailed tycoon Khodorkovsky, Russian President Putin demonstrates just who is in charge.

In a surprise move last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin set free the country's most prominent political prisoner, former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, after more than a decade spent behind bars. Khodorkovsky was once head of the Yukos oil corporation, the richest man in Russia and a determined political rival to Putin. While Putin was consolidating power, Khodorkovsky used his influence and money to support opposition groups, even mounting what, at the time, appeared to be a credible challenge to Putin's re-election campaign in 2002. Now, the timing of the clemency grant is been seen as an indicator of Putin's confidence in his absolute control over the Russian political apparatus, as also an attempt to portray a more conciliatory image to the world ahead of the Winter Olympics in Sochi early in 2014.

Global and domestic expressions of anger over Russia's legislation prohibiting gay "propaganda" have further damaged perceptions of the country's record on human rights in the run-up to the Games. The move to free Khodorkovsky along with the all-female rock band Pussy Riot and the Greenpeace 30 (imprisoned for protesting against Arctic oil drilling) is likely for Western consumption. But though the Pussy Riot and Greenpeace 30 cases received international attention, for Putin neither amounted to more than irritants. On the other hand, Russian media had been reporting that new charges were being framed to keep Khodorkovsky incarcerated. The risk that a man dubbed a "prisoner of conscience" could rally anti-Putin sentiment appeared too great even earlier this year.

A string of political successes have consolidated Putin's power. Through 2013, Putin outmanoeuvred the West in the diplomatic duel over Syria, adroitly managed the Edward Snowden asylum situation and just last week opened up his coffers to Ukraine to stanch its ambitions to seek closer ties with the European Union. Now, Khodorkovsky's release is an assertion of Putin's ability to wield absolute executive and legislative power — a signal that he can punish and pardon at will.

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