Pardoning Mikhail Khodorkovsky after a decade in prison is classic Putin — sudden, unexpected, seemingly illogical. But it’s not illogical. Burrow beneath the sediments of political theater, and the decision to set Khodorkovsky free makes sense.
Freeing Khodorkovsky is good p.r. at the end of a year of terrible p.r. This included (but was hardly limited to) the now-notorious anti-gay legislation, the ban on foreigners adoption children and aiding the Assad regime, in Syria.
In the West, predictably, they will view Khodorkovsky’s release as a sign of progress. At home, they won’t view it as anything. They won’t care. All that matters is the president hasn’t succumbed to Western pressure — especially Barack Obama. (Has anyone succumbed to Barack Obama?) Bottom line: Putin pardoned Khodorkovsky when he felt like it. He did so because Khodorkovsky is no longer dangerous to Putin. In the past ten years, Putin has fortified his rule — cultivating a powerful public persona and marginalizing his enemies. The oligarchs are gone. Power has been centralized. It’s unclear where Khodorkovsky fits into the Russia he is about to be released into.
The bigger question is whether Putin and Khodorkovsky reached some secret agreement — as in, Khodorkovsky gets pardoned but must leave the country and lead a quiet life outside the limelight. Wherever he goes — Tel Aviv? New York? — he’ll be free to take long, solitary walks on a sea-splashed embankment or through Central Park or wherever. He’ll be able to spend time with his mother, whom Putin noted is ill. But he will not be able to take over the Duma or any media outlets or pipelines. All that belongs to the Kremlin.