Former Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and once the richest man of Russia is reportedly to be in Germany after spending 10 years in prison in Russia on tax evasions. At a press conference in Berlin, Khodorkovski says he will no longer engage in politics and he may never return to his native land of Russia. News reports out of Moscow confirmed that his release came about after he received a pardon from Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Although Khodorkovsky said very little at the press conference, his sudden release has already raised an avalanche of speculations in Russia. According to France 2,as soon as the news of Khodorkovsky’s release broke the airwaves, he was put on a private jet “that whisked him to Berlin.”
What prompted Putin to stage this latest political coup?
For two weeks, there have been demonstrations in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, where pro-western demonstrators had been demanding that their president, Viktor Yanukovich, cave in to European Union demands and allow his country to be part of the Union. Yanukovich has been resisting with full backing of Moscow. The demonstrations now wear off and once again, Putin seems to have won in proxy politics. This has infuriated Western governments. A release of Khodorkovsky is seen as a preemptive strike by Putin, using the velvet glove instead of the iron fist to appease his critics ahead of the Winter Olympics set to take place in Sochi, Russia next February.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky was once Putin’s archest rival in 2002. As Putin was consolidating his power, Khodorkovsky was giving money to opposition political groups, and talking about a different vision for Russia than Putin’s model of “managed democracy.”
“My position is rather simple: I think that we need a civil society so the country can develop normally,” he said in 2002, as he was mounting what had begun to look like a challenge to Putin’s re-election as president. “Many things grow from civil society: independent courts, responsible government and a normal parliament.”
Mikhail Khodorkovsky was grooming to be the West point man in Russia. That suspicion dreaded Russian nationalists who viewed him with his wealth as a major threat to Russia strategic deterrence. Consequently, Khodorkovsky was arrested in 2003 and charged with fraud. His business was broken up and sold, mostly to state-owned companies. In 2010, when his sentence was nearing completion, he and his business partner were tried on new charges, and their sentences were extended until August of next year.
Khodorkovsky had always claimed his innocence, and never asked for mercy, which is why his sudden request for a pardon was viewed as a shocker to many in Russia. Bourgeois have never had revolutionary conviction. At the time of his arrest, Khodorkovsky had many politicians under his payroll in the hopes of creating stooges at the service of his dictates, Russian officials thought. But he is no longer a threat to Putin’s power base, and Khodorkovsky seems to have realized this.
Lilia Shevtsova, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, says investigators may have convinced him to ask for the pardon by preparing a third case against him, a case that could have resulted in another prolongation of his time in prison. “So what exactly did they tell him to persuade him to do something that he had resisted doing for 10 years?” Shevtsova says. “Of course, there is one, apparently, one very persuasive argument.”
In a statement issued through his spokesperson, Khodorkovsky made it clear that he had asked for the pardon, but that it did not involve any admission of guilt. His spokeswoman says that he won’t be available for comment or interviews. However Swiss television has confirmed that the former oil tycoon will settle in Switzerland where his wife and children have already been living. It remains to be seen what will be Khodorkovsky’s next move.