Once Russia’s richest man, Mikhail Khordorvosky, started his press conference by thanking everyone who helped facilitate his release; apologizing in advance if he failed to mention anyone.
The former head of Yukos Oil spent 10 years behind bars after being convicted of tax evasion and embezzlement. He was charged shortly after having a televised, heated argument with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Khodorkovsky had also funded the opposition, questioned state decisions on oil pipeline policy and raised corruption allegations; saying civil society was important for democracy.
As a result of Khodorkovsky’s two convictions, his company was broken up and sold off to become part of Russia’s biggest state oil giant.
Khodorkovsky said he hopes his pardon on Friday, December 20, by Putin would not lead people to think that there are no political prisoners left in Russia; because there are and he says they need to be helped.
“There are other political prisoners who are still left in Russia, not only those related to the Yukos criminal case,” he said. “I would like to say that you should not see me as a symbol that there are no more political prisoners in Russia. I’m asking you to see me as a symbol of the efforts of the civil society that could lead even to the release of those people whom nobody ever expected to see released.”
Khodorkovsky was released from a penal colony near the Arctic Circle early Friday and says he has not had much time to think about his future.
But he said he does not plan to go into politics and his pardon had nothing to do with admitting guilt.
“I am not going to engage in any political activity, and I said that in my letter to President Putin and reiterated it several times since,” he said. “I am going to engage in public work. The struggle for power is not for me now.”
The 50-year-old said he had asked Putin for a pardon for family reasons, citing his mother’s poor health. He said he will only return to Russia if he will be able to leave again when he wants.
“Mr. Peskov, the spokesman of the Russian president, said that nobody would prevent me from coming back to Russia at any moment. Unfortunately, at this time I do not have any guarantees that I will be able to fly again afterwards, wherever I need for any matters, and my family matters I currently see as a priority for me,” he said. The former tycoon has been given a year-long visa for Germany.
On Saturday, December 21, a day after being released from imprisonment in Russia, Khodorkovsky’s spokesman says he met with his oldest son, Pavel, and his parents, Marina and Boris, who flew to Berlin to see him.
Marieluise Beck, a member of Germany’s parliament and a supporter of Khodorkovsky, also met with him. She said she has been “fighting for his freedom” for years but had not met him before.
Russia’s federal prison service said Friday Khodorkovsky had requested to travel to Germany, where his mother has been receiving medical treatment.
The U.S. government welcomed the pardon, calling it a “humanitarian gesture” and “a positive development for Russian society.”
Russia is hosting the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi in February and many pundits believe Putin’s decision to release Khodorkovsky will help keep Russia’s abysmal human rights record out of the spotlight.
Ben Aris, executive editor in Moscow for Business New Europe, a financial magazine, said, “Mr. Putin wants to present the best of the face of Russia to the future, to encourage people: ‘Here is the new Russia, we are growing, and we are emerging as an economic power in Europe. And we want to deal with you, on a commercial basis at least.’”
Khodorkovsky is the most prominent of what are known in Russia as “the Christmas amnesties.” By January 7, Russian Orthodox Christmas, Russia’s new amnesty law is expected to free from jail two women from the punk rock band Pussy Riot and drop charges against the 30 people arrested aboard a Greenpeace ship following a protest in the Russian Arctic last September.
Chris Weafer, a partner with Macro-Advisory, a Moscow-based investment consultancy, said Putin is trying to remove high-profile irritants with the West.
“A great focus from the Kremlin over the next couple of months is to try and project a more positive image, to deflect some of the criticism that has been coming its way, for this year and for many years,” he said from London.
With Russia’s economy stagnating, the Kremlin may feel it is paying a high price for constantly irritating the West. Two years ago, Putin campaigned for election promising 5 percent annual growth; but, growth this year and next year is forecast to be around 1.3 percent.
While foreign investment levels have fallen, domestic capital flight from Russia continues at a high rate. This year, capital flight is to hit $75 billion – making for a total exodus of $400 billion since the recession of 2008.
Khodorkovsky was the richest man in Russia when he was jailed and his oil company taken over by the state. The impact on foreign investors was big.
Of Khodorkovsky’s release Friday, Aris said, “It is hugely significant, since he has come to personify a lot of the problems that investors have, or face, when they come to do business with Russia. It’s the insecurity, the lack of property rights, and the fear that you have your assets taken away by the state if you fall afoul of the government.”
Weafer sees it only as a step down the road to the rule of law, greater protections for private property, and cutting bureaucratic controls
“This does not in any way change the investment climate,” he said. “This is not going to result in investors queuing up with their checkbooks to invest in the economy – absolutely not.”
In 2003, when Khodorkovsky was jailed, Putin believed the businessman was building a political base to challenge him. Since then, Khodorkovsky consistently criticized Russia’s president in newspaper articles and interviews. He charged that Putin was needlessly dragging Russia down an authoritarian road.
At the same time, public attitudes in Russia gradually shifted, from seeing Khodorkovsky as a 1990s robber baron, to respecting him for spending years in jail and sticking to his principles. Now Khodorkovsky is out of jail and has access to the part of his fortune that he had moved overseas.
Aris said he believes that Putin’s decision to release Khodorkovsky reflects “how confident Putin now feels in terms of running the country.”
“The fact that he is willing to let someone, who could turn out to be a major and well-funded political enemy, to let him out of jail,” demonstrates Putin’s political self-confidence. Skeptics note, that barring a third trial, Khodorkovsky would have to have been released from jail next August, the end of his term.
On Friday, Russia’s democratic opposition hailed Khodorkovsky’s release.
Lyudmila Alexeyeva, who heads the Moscow Helsinki Group, told Interfax on Friday, “I am convinced that Mikhail Borisovich is well-equipped to play the role of a spiritual leader who will provide moral guidance. No matter what Mikhail Borisovich decides to do, he will become an unconditional spiritual leader, whom our society needs so urgently. Gandhi, Sakharov and Havel were such leaders.”