Peering out from the defendant’s cage in May 2005 as a judge read the lengthy verdict in his tax evasion trial, the oil tycoon who would become Russia’s most famous political prisoner saw no end in sight to Vladimir Putin’s vendetta against him.
The official sentence, handed down by the Meshschansky District Court, was 10 years in a prison camp.
But Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man, despaired that Putin’s zeal for retribution against a would-be rival would always trump the rule of law.
Khodorkovsky foresaw an eternity – “infinity”, as he put it – behind bars.
Infinity came to an abrupt, and unexpected, end for Khodorkovsky this week. It was literally “out of the blue”, in the words of his mother, Marina.
Ten years, one month and 25 days after masked commandos stormed his jet on a Siberian tarmac and arrested him at gunpoint, a presidential “pardon” liberated Khodorkovsky, who landed in Berlin Friday afternoon on a private jet.
Years of hatred
It would take a very charitable soul, indeed, to argue that Putin was acting out of the kindness of his heart in releasing a man for whom he’s harboured little more than hatred.
Russia’s president has gone so far as to allege that Khodorkovsky has blood on his hands. That’s an allusion to the 1998 murder of a provincial mayor that Putin’s Kremlin cronies have murkily tried – in vain – to tie to Khodorkovsky and his now-disbanded oil company, Yukos.
Most analysts are saying that the pardon – coming on the heels of a broader “amnesty” bill that also saw the release of two imprisoned members of the Pussy Riot punk rock group – is a shameless bid to burnish his (and Russia’s) image in the final countdown to the Olympic Games in Sochi in February.
Human rights groups lambast Putin for what they claim is a sustained assault on the pillars of Russia’s civic society and dissent.
Stoking further outrage is a law that outlaws "spreading information about non-traditional sexual behavior" to minors, a law activists say has emboldened the homophobic right to step up violent attacks on gays.
Wriggle room for a 'magnanimous' gesture?
Central Asian and Caucasian immigrants have also been targeted amid a climate of xenophobia-driven nationalism that critics say has found fertile soil in Putin’s Russia.
Sochi was clearly a factor in Khodorkovsky’s early release.
At a time when Putin is feeling more secure at the helm, having faced down mass opposition protests and scored some diplomatic “victories” (e.g. Syria, Ukraine), he feels he has wriggle room for a “magnanimous” gesture.
Magnanimous – and symbolic. Even as Khodorkovsky walks free, lesser-known prisoners – including many of those arrested in the May 2012 crackdown on an anti-Putin rally in Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square – remain trapped in judicial limbo.
Putin’s feisty performance at his Thursday press conference, attended by 1300 journalists, showcased a man convinced that he’s still on top of his game.
Neither Khodorkovsky (nor the earnest CNN journalist who asked him why he was so critical of the West) pose a real threat to him, as he sees things.
But his swaggering aside, even Putin must know he’s not impervious.
His economy is battling to show real growth, his goal of diversifying away from a near-total reliance on oil and gas, elusive as ever (Just witness the Ukraine bailout, centered on gas deals and shoring up Russia’s Soviet-era ties to Ukraine’s heavy industry, anchored in the Russophile east).
Russia, meanwhile, continues to bleed hard cash.
Khodorkovsky’s arrest was a watershed moment precisely because it paved the way for a ratcheting up of Putin’s authoritarian, top-down style of governance.
In a country just a few years out of the “Wild East” privatization grab of the post-Soviet era, it drove home the message that Russia isn’t a place where it’s safe to do business, where the rules can change on a dime, obliterating even the best-laid investment strategies.
Nor is it simply foreigners steering clear of the Kremlin. Capital outflows from Russia are expected to climb to $65 billion for 2013. Unless you’re Gazprom, you probably don’t feel entirely safe from the tax police or a judicial system in which magistrates are often seen as sinecures of the state, paying blind fealty to Putin.
Focus on ‘civic activity’
Then there’s Khodorkovsky himself.
He told The Financial Times newspaper recently that while he has no plans to go into politics if released, he would remain engaged in civic activity.
“Change or be destroyed: This has been the historical choice for any human civilization for thousands of years,” Khodorkovsky wrote in an op-ed piece in The New York Times back in October, on the tenth anniversary of his imprisonment.
Whether Putin can change is a matter for speculation (I believe he’s too hide-bound and entrenched in his worldview to adapt in any meaningful way).
But from here on out, the Russian president will have a former inmate from Penal Colony No. 7 in Karelia to remind him that time may not be on his side.
Infinity can be shorter than one expects.
The views and opinions in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the editorial line of FRANCE 24.
(Follow Douglas Herbert on Twitter: @dougf24)
Date created : 2013-12-20