Inside Story

Putin the powerful

Are the recent amnesties an attempt to boost the Russian president's image ahead of the Winter Olympics in Sochi?

Last updated: 23 Dec 2013 13:14
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Russia's President Vladimir Putin has capped a remarkable year to consolidate his grip on power, punctuated by punishments, pardons and political prowess. He has even released one of his most prominent foes.

Forbes magazine has called Putin the world's most powerful person in 2013, and he has certainly made his mark, chalking up several notable diplomatic victories and scoring points against the West.

In his state of the nation address he derided what he called the liberal West as "genderless and infertile", and promised to fight the western elite's "destruction of traditional values from the top".

I believe that our President Vladimir Putin doesn't really distinguish [between] himself and the country Russia. Apparently he believes and acts as if he is Russia - well, after being in supreme power for more than 13 years that is excusable.

Pavel Felgenhauer, a Russian journalist

Putin's accomplishments of late include striking a deal to rid Syria of chemical weapons while keeping relations with Damascus intact; granting temporary asylum to former US National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden; outmanoeuvring the EU to effectively buy off Ukraine; and granting a pardon to his oldest enemy, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was released on Friday after a decade in prison.

Khodorkovsky had been in jail since being arrested in 2003 on fraud and tax evasion charges - accusations he maintains were politically motivated - because of his criticism of the Kremlin. Before he was jailed, Khodorkovsky was Russia's wealthiest person, with a fortune of $15bn, amassed as the head of the country's largest oil company.

Speaking in Berlin, the former tycoon said he had no plans to get involved in Russian politics. "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. I am going to engage in public work. The struggle for power is not for me now."

Khodorkovsky was among thousands of people granted pardons, including members of the punk band Pussy Riot and environmental activists with Greenpeace.

Reporting from Moscow, Al Jazeera's Peter Sharp said: "That is being seen here as part of the carefully orchestrated charm offensive that's coinciding with the opening of the Winter Olympics in just a few weeks time. You mustn't ever underestimate how important these games are to President Putin. They may be called the Winter Olympics, but they're actually called the Putin Olympics here and his credibility really rests on their success."

So how much of it is a balancing act to counter more pressing problems? And are the recent moves more of a distraction to boost Putin's image abroad, and deflect attention from what Russia's deputy economy minister Andrei Klepach said was a year of "missed opportunities".

Helping presenter Divya Gopalan to dissect this for Inside Story is former Russian diplomat Vyacheslav Matuzov; Michael Binyon, a former Moscow correspondent and author of the book Life in Russia; he has met Mikhail Khodorkovsky. And we are also joined by Pavel Felgenhauer, a Russian journalist and a critic of Moscow's political and military leadership.

"I think it was a very wise step to open the door to the West, of course it is connected with the Olympiad and the presence of the world leaders in these Olympic Games in Sochi - everything is in one packet. I think it gave to Mr Putin many points outside the country and doesn't disturb him at all inside the country...

Vyacheslav Matuzov, a former Russian diplomat


Al Jazeera
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