Playing Santa

Why Is Putin Pardoning His Political Enemies?

First it was amnesty for Greenpeace and Pussy Riot members, now a possible pardon for the former oil tycoon Khodorkovsky. Russia’s president sure is being kind to critics.

The amnesty announcements came quickly this week, each one more surprising than the last: first, the Russian Duma passed a bill that will likely free up to 2,000 prisoners, including two jailed members of the punk band Pussy Riot and 30 Greenpeace members arrested after protesting in the Arctic this past September. Then, at his annual press conference on Thursday, President Vladimir Putin announced plans to pardon one of his biggest critics and one of the country’s most famous political prisoners, the jailed Yukos oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Why is Putin feeling so merciful all of a sudden to his political enemies? As for his reasons for freeing the former oligarch, Putin listed the fact that Khodorkovsky’s mother had fallen ill, and that he had personally written to Putin requesting clemency. And as for the other 2,000 inmates, including the two women who once penned a song called ‘Virgin Mary, Put Putin Away,’ Putin merely said he was marking the 20th anniversary of the post-Soviet constitution with a particularly benevolent gesture.

Yet many analysts, human-rights activists and opposition members say that it’s the upcoming Olympic Games in Sochi in February that have convinced the Kremlin to turn so kind. “The Olympics was that last chip in the game, in [Putin’s] decision for the amnesty—so he would look like a real host, whom everybody loves to see, so everybody would smile at him and wish to visit him,” said Lyudmila Alexeyeva, Russia’s leading human-rights activist and a founding member of the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group.

With the amnesty documents signed on Thursday afternoon, a lawyer for Pussy Riot members Maria Alyohina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova said the young women could be freed in a matter of days. Still, another former member of the band says the amnesty bill will not change their attitude towards the president’s politics. “We are innocent; we were not supposed to be imprisoned,” Yekaterina Samutsevich told The Daily Beast on Thursday. In October 2012, a Moscow court commuted the punishment for Samutsevich from a prison term to probation, forbidding her to travel outside of Moscow.

During his press conference on Thursday, even as he touted the amnesty, Putin mentioned the band by name and criticized their past actions. “I was sorry that they were engaged in such disgraceful behavior, which in my view was degrading to the dignity of women. They went beyond all boundaries,” Putin said, referring to the “punk prayer” that some of the band members performed at Russia’s main church.

“The president still did not recognize that our performance brought light to a serious issue of Russian church being used for political reasons,” Samutsevich commented heatedly, adding that she found his comments “rude,” “insulting” and “shameful for Russia.”

Another outspoken critic of Putin, opposition leader Yevgenia Chirikova, insisted that far more critics of the Kremlin’s politics have been jailed in the past few years than those spared by the amnesty bill. She saw the amnesty as a token appeasement, to distract from a concerted effort by Russian authorities to harass, detain and harm its critics. Her environmental movement, which is made up of some 60,000 activists who oppose the building of a motorway through the Khimki Forest, has never faced so many legal issues, she said. Ecologists and environmental activists have become a “target” for law enforcement agencies over the past few years as “the Kremlin realized that our reports and investigations threatened big money deals, huge corruption scams; so to mute us officials put us in jail,” Chirikova said.

Meanwhile, thousands of relatives and friends across Russia, who for years have been waiting for their beloved ones to return from prison, welcomed the amnesty this week. Both Tolokonnikova’s father and husband flew to the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk on Wednesday to meet Nadia on the day of her release. They waited all day on Thursday in bitter cold and snow outside the Tuberculoses Hospital #1 in Krasnoyarsk where the band member is convalescing after a serious illness.

As with most of Pussy Riot’s fans, Tolokonnikova’s father, Andrei Tolokonnikov, welcomed his daughter’s freedom but not the motives behind it. He called the ideology behind his daughter’s amnesty ‘”a cynical game of state authorities trying to bring to a minimum the scale of boycott against Sochi Olympics.” The father had a chance to talk to his daughter on the phone for 15 minutes on Thursday. She sounded “pessimistic” he said and did not believe that she would come out of jail before the February Games. “Her chances to be freed soon must be seen in a darker light from behind the bars,” he said.