What does the future hold for Russia’s Khodorkovsky?

Mikhail Khodorkovsky – once Russia’s richest man, a vehement Kremlin critic, and currently a detainee in a Siberian penal colony – may unexpectedly walk free after President Vladimir Putinannounced his intention to pardon him.

But how does Khodorkovsky fit into the complex landscape of Russian politics, and what will his role be if he’s set free? 

Having amassed a fortune as the head of Yukos, the now-nonexistent oil giant, Khodorkovsky fell afoul of the fledgling Putin administration 10 years ago when he criticized its authoritative bent and donated funds to opposition groups.  

He was jailed on charges of tax evasion, embezzlement, and money laundering – convictions that piled up during two high-profile court cases between 2004 and 2010. Up until today, a third trial was rumored to also be in the works.

His business empire dismantled, Khodorkovky has spent 10 years in Russian prisons and colonies, where he has worked a number of menial jobs, most recently making plastic folders. All the while he has maintained his innocence, criticizing the Kremlin repeatedly in op-eds, often in Western newspapers. His prison term was scheduled to run out in August 2014.  

Putin’s announcement came as a surprise, with even Khodorkovsky’s lawyers caught off guard. They declined to comment before speaking with their client – but not before one of them admitted that they knew nothing of the alleged clemency request.

Why let him go now?

To hear the Kremlin explain it, Khodorkovsky is only being released now, and not sooner, because he finally swallowed his pride and submitted an appeal for clemency – a step that, according to Putin, could have gotten him out of prison much earlier.

All Khodorkovsky had to do was ask, Putin told reporters today. He “had to write a particular letter, in accordance with the law. … He wouldn’t do that. However, quite recently, he did write such a letter and addressed me with an appeal – a request for clemency.”

But the announcement’s timing – taking place 50 days before the Sochi Olympics and coinciding with a hasty amnesty for Russia’s other big-name detainees, such as members of Pussy Riot – leaves the Kremlin with a publicity challenge on its hands.

It’s all about Sochi” is how critics and observers responded to the news. No one had doubted that the Putin administration would be scrambling to burnish its image before the Games, performing a series of “administrative curtsies” to the West, according to this summer’s prediction by political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky. The question was only how far these steps would go.

“These are symbolic gestures for the international community,” liberal Duma deputy Ilya Ponomarev told the Financial Times. We know it’s not a sign of a political thaw because the government is cherry-picking the detainees to set free, he said, selecting the ones who are most well-known in the West. “That’s a clear sign that internally the policy will continue as is.”

How much does Khodorkovsky still matter? 

Short answer: a lot. Otherwise, the announcement of his release would not have happened so close to the Olympics, when Russia finds itself more battered in international opinion polls than it had hoped to be so close to the Games.

The longer answer is more complex, depending in large part on what exactly Khodorkovsky told Putin in his appeal letter, and whether he submitted one at all. A straightforward request for pardon – as opposed to a more nuanced plea for clemency – would be tantamount to an admission of guilt, harming his credibility once he’s free.  

That’s the outcome the Kremlin wants. “The fact that he [Khodorkovsky] is appealing for clemency means that he’s admitting his guilt,” spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Interfax earlier today.

Yet the sheer force of Khodorkovsky’s story – of standing up to the Kremlin at such dire personal cost – could lend him a unifying power over Russia’s beleaguered and fractured opposition. And that’s the outcome the Kremlin will seek to avoid at all costs.

What happens next?

Khodorkovsky repeatedly stated that he’s not interested in politics. But many Russian commentators mentioned his name today in the same breath as the late South African leaderNelson Mandela – either drawing parallels between the two or contesting any such similarity.

“He is one of the most prominent social activists, perhaps the most prominent today,” pro-opposition writer and journalist Victor Senderovich told the independent radio station Echo Moskvy. “He will without a doubt continue his social activism” after being released, he said. 

“But he’s not Mandela?” the interviewer asked.

“Listen, we’re not talking about fans, we’re talking about people who respect him – for fantastic human strength and his clear position,” Senderovich said. Khodorkovsky was more likely to quietly continue his intellectual work, perhaps even performing it from outside Russian borders, than to use this respect to build armies of demonstrators, he added.

In the opposing view, Khodorkovsky was released precisely because he lost the power to muster widespread admiration. “He spent too much time in prison and has lost all energy – intellectual, social, and political,” a right-wing writer Alexander Prokhanov wrote this morning. “He’s depleted himself as a fighter and is no longer dangerous. … He can no longer be compared to Mandela.” 

Or did he make a deal with Putin promising to keep silent? Journalist Tikhon Dzyadko wrote on Echo Moskvy website that he suspected a behind-the-scenes agreement with the Kremlin: writing the clemency appeal “in exchange for [the cancellation of] the third court case, or his [ill] mother’s health, or something else.”

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