December 22, 2013 - 5:58:08 am
Russian President Vladimir Putin has shown that he can buckle under Western pressure. On Friday, he released former oil magnate and opposition political financier Mikhail Khodorkovsky. He also released other prisoners celebrated in the West: two members of the band Pussy Riot and 30 members of Greenpeace. It was a bold, unexpected and commendable step by a leader who had consolidated his position in global power stakes recently with a few deft moves on Syria, but it was an action he was forced into due to the collective and concerted pressure from the West, ignoring which would have cost him heavily.
Recently, US President Barack Obama and the leaders of Germany and France announced that they would not attend the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi in what was widely interpreted as a protest against Russia’s new anti-homosexuality law. It was a threat Putin couldn’t take lightly. He had spent around $50bn on the Olympics preparations and that amount would be a waste if the world leaders don’t turn up to witness grandeur of the event Moscow is hosting. Secondly, Putin’s decision to release Khodorkovsky comes from a realization that he has effectively crushed the opposition and a free Khodorkovsky wouldn’t make a difference. Eighteen months of relentless force against the opposition activists have produced the kind of results he wanted and driven many of its members out of the country.
Khodorkovsky was reunited with his family yesterday after he was whisked away from his prison camp in a remote corner of northern Russia. The extraordinary operation was worked out behind the scenes with the German government and came about after negotiations between German former foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
At the time of his arrest in 2003, Khodorkovsky was attempting to turn his Yukos oil company into the first major Russian corporation to adopt Western standards of transparency, and doing so, invited the wrath of Putin. He was also helping moderate opposition parties and civil-society groups. He was arrested on trumped-up charges and kept in jail for a decade.
The release of one Russia’s most famous prisoners shows that sport can have a positive impact. The Russian president is no leader who is swayed by the criticism of human rights groups or countries against his actions. He would act only when his interests are at stake, and the world needs to extract as much as possible from him when the time is ripe.
It’s unlikely that Khodorkovsky will do anything that will antagonize Putin, and for the time being, he will be happy to relish his freedom. Putin has an iron grip over power, and in the current situation, no one can challenge without getting jailed•