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Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement about oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s early release from jail after serving a 10-year sentence caught a lot of people by surprise. Khodorkovsky’s appearance in Berlin within 24 hours after this announcement, wearing a heavy duty Russian air-force jacket and smiling broadly, looked like a scene from a Cold War spy thriller.

What followed these moments of surprise and joy for many was a global media spectacle. Journalists and commentators scrutinised whether Putin’s decision symbolised a political strength or weakness, whether Khodorkovsky admitted his guilt, and whether he is going to become a political opposition figure or remain in exile. It seemed that media outlets were outpacing one another in applying dramatic labels to the momentous event.

A reflection on the media coverage along

It looked like a scene from a Cold War spy thriller. 24 hours after his release, Oligrach Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who ended a 10-year sentence, appeared in Berlin wearing a heavy duty Russian air-force jacket and smiling broadly. It was, however, the Russian President Vladimir Putin's announcement about Khodorkovsky's early release which caught a lot of people by surprise. A global media spectacle followed. Journalists and commentators scrutinised whether Putin's decision symbolised a political strength or weakness, whether Khodorkovsky admitted his guilt, and whether he is going to become a political opposition figure or remain in exile. Media outlets appeared to be outpacing one another in applying dramatic labels to the momentous event.

A reflection on the media coverage along with the analysis of Khodorkovsky's interviews of the past few days, however, paints a more ambivalent picture and suggests that the dichotomies and sensational labels applied are often not fitting. The "surprise" label attributed to Putin's decision, the "disappointment" characterising public reaction at Khodorkovky's apparent disinterest in re-entering Russian politics, and the "Dissident versus Despot" dichotomy applied to the Putin-Khodorkovky's relationship, bear closer scrutiny. A closer look at his latest interviews highlights Khodorkovsky's complex personality and well-formed, but somewhat, contradictory political views.

'Surprise' label

Labelled an "off-stage bombshell", Putin's announcement of the impending release of Khodorkovsky was deemed a shocking sensation. The change of heart was attributed to Putin's perceived love of surprises and his arbitrary application of the "carrot-stick" approach. "Putin works in mysterious ways," wrote New Republic's Julia Ioffe. While it is true that reducing Khodorkovsky's sentence came as a surprise, he had in fact, been scheduled for release in August 2014, in accordance with the 2013 decision[Ru] of the Moscow City Court. 

Putin's bold decision has often been mistaken for arbitrariness in the latest analyses. His signature diplomatic moves - granting asylum to the NSA whistle blower Edward Snowden, bailing out Ukraine's economy, and now releasing his perceived arch enemy - are well thought-out strategic decisions guided by political prowess and self-confidence. In the case of pardoning Khodorkovsky, the decision was neither sensational nor arbitrary. Rather, it was a combination of socio-political factors: A strategically timed publicity stunt to bolster Russia's positive image internationally in the run-up to the Sochi Olympics, a result of skilful lobbying efforts by the German diplomatic elite and a humane act of mercy driven by Putin's personal convictions about vengeance, justice and mercy.

Khodorkovsky vows to stay out of Russia

Public disappointment

Another highlight of the media coverage is the perceived "disappointment" with regard to Khodorkovsky's expressed disinterest in entering Russia's political arena. When asked about his possible interest in competing for power in Russia, Khodorkovsky answered: "The struggle for power is not for me." This was widely interpreted as an unwillingness to challenge Putin. While some expression of disillusionment is understandable, it seems premature to dismiss Khodorkovsky's political ambitions and focus on his potential challenge to the regime.

Having voiced a strong interest in strengthening Russia's political and civic conscience, Khodorkovsky is unlikely to relent on his passion for supporting Russian civil society in forms other than challenging power, for example through funding and intellectual guidance.

Moreover, it is yet to be seen how Russia's general public sees the significance of Khodorkovsky's release, and whether they would consider him a viable political candidate. While recent polls by Russia's Levada Centre suggest that the majority of Russians perceived the judicial process against Khodorkovsky as unfair, his public image in Russia may not be as favourable as portrayed by the Western media. It was mostly the fact that Khodorkovsky had retained his moral stance and did not "break" by appealing for clemency on the grounds of admission of guilt, that attracted public sympathy. Overall, however, Khodorkovsky's complex past is likely to continue to taint his reputation for many Russian citizens.

A decade of bad blood 

While the media has been adamant in imposing the categories of competition and challenge between the Tsar and his arch enemy in political terms, the adversity between the two appears less poignant if examined in a broader socio-historic context. Khodorkovsky's audacious attempts to exert direct political influence in the early 2000s triggered Putin's anger, who then viewed Khodorkovsky as his personal enemy. In contrast, Putin's announcement[Ru] of Khodorkovsky's impending release contained little emotion, only calm and calculated rationale. In stating that "10 years is a serious punishment," the president conveys a sense of "justice being done" and readiness to close that page of history. What has changed since 2003 and why is Khodorkovsky no longer a threat to the system?

Khodorkovsky's belief, expressed in his first post-prison interview [Ru], that Putin is personally responsible for not only keeping him alive, but also for providing him with bearable living conditions and for leaving his family in peace, also implies that the relationship between the two individuals has important moral underpinnings.

In essence, any big independent business in the era of privatisation was seen as a political threat. The rules of "wild capitalism" were such that the privatisation of Russia's economic assets effectively meant the privatisation of Russia's political domain. In this context, Khodorkovsky's unprecedented success in business, combined with his support for independent media and outspoken criticism of Putin, was not only powerful political posturing but also an unprecedented challenge to the power status quo. Khodorkovsky has always admitted the fact that he was fully aware of the stakes in the game. In this respect, his wrongdoing was more of a managerial miscalculation rather than a legal or moral transgression, a position that effectively renders him no longer a threat to the regime.

Khodorkovsky's belief, expressed in his first post-prison interview [Ru], that Putin is personally responsible for not only keeping him alive, but also for providing him with bearable living conditions and for leaving his family in peace, also implies that the relationship between the two individuals has important moral underpinnings. When asked [Ru] whether he could "forgive Putin", Khodorkovsky answered, with a trace of a smir, "If this is what he needs, if he has an interest in it, then yes." These recent statements alone suggest that the Putin versus Khodorkovsky dichotomy has long lost its analytical edge. Instead of dwelling on the symbolics of their political divide, the analysis now should move on to the personal aspects of this ambivalent relationship.

Media posturing

Amidst the media craze, we are able to discern some intriguing elements in Khodorkovsky's post-prison public exchange. Perhaps the most fascinating interview is one given to Yevgenia Albats, the editor-in-chief of The New Times. More impromptu and relaxed than other media appearances, it showcases Khodorkovsky's strong sense of patriotism and somewhat ambiguous opinions about Russia's current political opposition. In the interview, Khodorkovsky clearly identified himself as a Russian patriot, holding strong convictions about defending the territory that rightfully belongs to Russia. He was adamant about fighting against the separatists of the north Caucuses, even though he's aware that it would likely be a bloody war costing millions of lives.

Perhaps his time in prison has strengthened his sense of national belonging, while at the same time weakened his interest in directly engaging in politics. When asked about Alexey Navalny, Khodorkovsky cautioned against unfair attacks against Russia's prominent opposition leader and refrained from calling Navalny a "nationalist", while admitting that some scrutiny of his convictions is well justified.

It remained unclear from the interview whether Khodorkovsky would support Navalny as a political figure and what he thought about Russia's political opposition in general. In answering the questions, Khodorkovsky phrased his responses carefully, but at times it appeared as if he was thinking out loud, especially on the subject of his future plans and Russia's contemporary politics. This combination of strong and somewhat frightening opinions and his careful and soft-spoken talk about politics indicates how little is known about this complex personality that has just re-emerged in the public sphere.

Elena Minina is a social scientist specialising in post-Soviet Russian studies and comparative education. She holds a PhD in social sciences from the University of Oxford. 

Dr Maria Repnikova is a post-doctoral fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies and a visiting scholar at Government Department, Georgetown University. She specialises in Chinese and Russian politics and state-media relations under authoritarian rule.

Source: Al Jazeera