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Putin frees his enemies as part of Sochi spin

Tuesday - 12/24/2013, 3:34am  ET

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, listens to questions at his first news conference after his release in Berlin, Sunday, Dec. 22, 2013. The former oil baron and prominent critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was reunited with his family in Berlin on Saturday, a day after being released from a decade-long imprisonment in Russia. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV
Associated Press

MOSCOW (AP) -- It came as a shock both for those released and the general public -- President Vladimir Putin's move to pardon his foes has allowed him to drive the news agenda less than two months before the Sochi Games.

Putin is dribbling out a headline day after day in the media. First, Mikhail Khodorkovsky was released after a decade in prison, then Pussy Riot activists were pardoned and now 30 Greenpeace activists are awaiting their turn.

The abrupt move by Putin to release his adversaries mixed the elements of an astute spin effort with a crude KGB-style operation. The pardons could help repair some of the damage to Russia's image before the Winter Olympics, which run Feb. 7-23, but it doesn't ease tensions with the West over Ukraine and other issues, including gay rights, and keeps tight Kremlin control over Russia's political scene unchanged.

No one in Russia expected Putin to release Khodorkovsky, his arch-foe and once Russia's richest man, after more than a decade in prison. In fact, most observers felt pretty certain that authorities would file another set of criminal charges against the former oil tycoon to prevent him from walking free after serving his term.

One-time Kremlin insider, political consultant Gleb Pavlovsky, saw the gloomy expectations as part of a carefully choreographed performance ending with Khodorkovsky's surprise release and his swift move to Germany.

"It's quite obvious that it was timed for Christmas," Pavlovsky said. "Putin has turned it into a big European and global show."

Putin announced his decision to pardon Khodorkovsky as he was walking out of a four-hour news conference in response to a question from a Kremlin-friendly news outlet. If he did that at the news conference, it would have diverted attention from other subjects and spoiled the show.

Khodorkovsky told the media in Berlin that Putin's statement came as a surprise to him, even though he had submitted a request for a pardon on German advice. A few hours later, he was taken from his bunk in the middle of the night, flown away from prison in a helicopter and put on a Germany-bound private jet.

Some compared Khodorkovsky's release to the expulsion of dissidents during Cold War times, when Putin served as a KGB officer.

One motive behind the secretive effort could be a desire to prevent Khodorkovsky from making a triumphant exit from prison to dozens of TV cameras -- something the KGB also tried to do when they quickly and quietly escorted foes of the Soviet regime out of the country.

Khodorkovsky's release topped the news for several days. Then, on Monday came the turn of the two members of the Pussy Riot punk band, who were serving two-year terms for an irreverent protest against Putin at Moscow's main cathedral in March 2012.

The two women didn't receive the same secretive treatment that Khodorkovsky had and were quickly released. Maria Alekhina was driven to a railway station, but walked away and went to a local non-governmental organization. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova went to her grandmother's home after being released from prison and briefly speaking to journalists.

"They were released at a speed unseen in a clumsy Russian prison system," said Stanislav Belkovsky, a Moscow-based political analyst who had close links with the Kremlin in the past. "There must have been a strict order to do it quickly."

Immediately upon their release, the band members slammed Putin's amnesty as a publicity stunt, and Tolokonnikova called for a boycott of the Sochi Games to protest Russia's human rights record. They likely will remain a thorn in Putin's side, but keeping them in prison through the Olympics until their term expires in March could have posed a much bigger problem for the Kremlin, serving as a globally recognizable symbol of Russia's intolerance to dissent.

Next on the list is the 30-member crew of the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise, who spent two months in jail for a protest outside Russia's Arctic oil platform. They are waiting for a stamp in their passports to be able to leave Russia, something expected within days.

The timing of the amnesty was carefully chosen to prevent Putin from looking as if he caved in to pressure. For many years, the Kremlin has ignored calls at home and abroad for Khodorkovsky's release, and it has likewise stonewalled protests against jailing the Pussy Riot band members from some of the world's leading musicians and renowned public figures.

The amnesty came at the moment when few expected it.

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