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Why is Putin Pardoning Khodorkovsky Now?

20/12/2013 08:47 GMT | Updated 18/02/2014 10:59 GMT

There are surprises in politics and there are shocks. Today's announcement from Putin that he is pardoning Mikhail Khodorkovsky, one of the original oligarchs and long-time enemy of Putin, most definitely qualifies as a shock.

Khodorkovsky was once the world's richest man. He ran the Yukos oil empire in Russia and had a personal wealth that ran into the billions at a time when most Russians lived below the poverty line. But in October 2003 he was arrested and charged with fraud. Khodorkovsky was sentenced to nine years in jail and his Yukos empire was dismantled.

The charges though were widely seen as politically motivated, a sudden response to Khodorkovsky offering to fund the political opposition to Putin in the 2004 presidential elections. When the end of Khodorkovsky's sentence approached in 2009, the sentence was extended to 12 years, including time already served, after a fresh round of embezzlement charges. It was no surprise when Amnesty International went on to classify Khodorkovsky as a prisoner of conscience.

Most observers expected Khodorkovsky to die behind bars, unless Putin died first. So why has Putin changed his mind?

I expect there are two items in play here: the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics and the Ukraine.

For such a tough man, Putin's ego can be a little fragile and he may be uneasy about the criticism coming his way over Sochi. First there is the extortionate cost of the Olympics themselves. The current bill stands at over $50billion, five times its budgeted costs. It all smacks of some very dodgy financial accounting and symptomatic of the corruption that is rife in the Russian state.

Then there are the widespread international criticisms of Russia's anti-gay laws. A number of world leaders are shunning the opening ceremony in protest and the broader international community is still talking of protests and boycotts by athletes and participants as a possible response.

No doubt Putin has been considering the release of Khodorkovsky (along with Pussy Riot and the Arctic 30 from Greenpeace) as a way to play the statesman card. And it would all look good just after Mandela's death - forgive your enemies. But I think the sudden change of temperature in the Ukraine has brought these releases forward.

Putin wants no Western involvement in the Ukraine at all, where huge peaceful demonstrations against the pro-Putin president Yanukovych are threatening to turn nasty. The President has signed a treaty with Russia in the face of widespread opposition at home who'd rather Ukraine lent towards the democratic EU rather than the autocratic Russian state.

By releasing his most famous prisoner along with Pussy Riot and the Arctic 30, is Putin saying to the West, this is the trade for you staying out of the Ukraine? I think it's a likely consideration.

Yes this is a PR move from Putin. Do not for one second think this is a response to international pressure. But also let's be clear, the release of Khodorkovsky is one hell of a PR move. No-one saw this coming.

It's true that Khodorkovsky's sentence was due to finish at the beginning of next year (his sentence reduced by two years) but considering he's been jailed twice on trumped on charges, all bets were on there being another round of embezzlement and fraud charges to keep him behind bars. But instead Putin has decided it's in his better interests to let the former oligarch go.

So what now for Khodorkovsky?

It's not clear at this stage whether there are any conditions on his release, such as exile or a demand to stay out of domestic politics. Indeed it is questionable whether Khodorkovsky would even accept such conditions.

Back in 2003, before his dramatic arrest, Khodorkovsky was repeatedly warned that an arrest was likely and imminent. He was advised repeatedly to flee Russia but he refused, choosing arrest instead. Indeed in 2005 he tried to run for the Duma, Russia's parliament, from prison but was prevented by a quick change in Russian law passed deliberately to ensure his exclusion.

It is possible Khodorkovsky may come to London, like many wealthy Russians before him. It is thought his personal wealth still stands at about $200million, though there is no way to confirm this, which would be enough to keep him going even at London prices. (His personal wealth was always a closely guarded secret, even before he was stripped of Yukos.) But even if he did this, it is unlikely that Khodorkovsky would remain silent.

In January 2004, Khodorkovsky's lawyer read a statement from him saying that "the only ideal that enthuses him today is the ideal of defending human rights. If he gets out of prison he is determined to devote himself exclusively to working for the betterment of society." As the journalist Anna Politkovskaya ruefully remarked in her book A Russian Diary at the time, Putin has "managed to bring an oligarch to civic consciousness." Ironically Putin's greatest achievement.

Khodorkovsky remains loathed by most Russians because of the questionable accumulation of his exorbitant wealth so he is unlikely to be a clear and present danger to Putin in the short term. However his every move will be watched very closely by Putin and the rest of us. Khodorkovsky is unlikely to have been broken by his time behind bars.