Who will he pardon next?
The astounding pardon of Mikhail Khodorkovsky is only the latest icing on a historic amnesty that President Vladimir Putin has offered Russia. The amnesty covers up to 25,000 prisoners, including the Arctic 30, Pussy Riot, and several of the Bolotnaya protestors imprisoned for demonstrations against the government last year.
Much speculation is circulating about the possible reasons for the amnesty. According to Putin, the generous pardons mark the 20th anniversary of the Russian Federation’s constitution. Most rights activists maintain that Putin’s olive branch to contemporary Russian dissidents (as well as, it’s worth noting, corrupt officials and businessmen) comes as a “master stroke” ahead of the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
Just one week prior to the announcement of the amnesty, Putin was drawing fire for shutting down a state news agency that included opposition opinions in its coverage of Sochi. Putin’s state security apparatus treats as terrorists environmentalists who raise issues of environmental destruction and worker exploitation related to the massive Olympics-oriented development. Add to that Russia’s new anti-GLBT laws, and heightening geo-political tensions between the Kremlin and Washington over Syria and Central Asia, and you have a high-pressure diplomatic situation.
It is true that liberating the Arctic 30 will save face for Russia during the Olympics. The freeing of four members of the Bolotnaya 27, a group of Russians put on trial last year for rioting before Putin’s 2013 inauguration, will also improve Russia’s human rights image. It’s also great to imagine Misha Khodorkovsky rocking out to Pussy Riot amongst the Bolotnaya 27 and Arctic 30.
But watching world leaders scramble over diplomatic capital is like watching hyenas attacking each other over the carcass of a wildebeest. It’s not a pretty picture, but something makes you want to watch. And when you do, you find out that they are really fighting over survival. Russia’s amnesty has far reaching implications that touch beyond who gets Obama’s seat at the Olympics, to the delicate balance of the global status quo.
Conflict Over Amnesty
Human rights organizations expected much more than these high profile characters when the amnesty was being considered earlier this year. Estimates in the summer ranged between 30 and 100 thousands prisoners becoming subject to some form of reprieve under amnesty. But the right wing has not supported the amnesty throughout the entire process. Some saw the original draft, written by the Human Rights Council, as affecting criminals of dubious character.
Expressing dissatisfaction with the original draft, the first deputy chairman of the Duma Committee on Civil, Criminal and Arbitration Law Yuri Napso insisted, “If it is true that about 25 percent of prisoners will go free, then it is wrong. Wrong, that freedom can come out corrupt officials and drug traffickers. Do not think that the president would approve such a document.” After being whittled away at considerably, the final allotment falls shy of the mark. According to Oleg Orlov of the human rights center, Memorial, “the part of Russian society that advocated for amnesty understand it in a broader sense, and of course we are disappointed.”
Of course there are more qualified reasons than numbers to be disappointed with the amnesty. In some cases, for example, a pardon falls on people who will be harassed as soon as their feet hit the pavement. Alexei Navalny, for instance, has been the subject of state repression for years as a fighter in the struggle against corruption. A successful opposition candidate who gained nearly 30 percent of the popular vote for Mayor of Moscow, Navalny was finally incarcerated last year, amidst the tumultuous anti-Putin protest waves, for embezzlement and fraud.
Things do not look good for Mikhail Khodorkovsky, either. Also imprisoned for financial reasons, Khodorkovsky held the flame of Russian capitalism from the Soviet youth vanguard of Comsomol to the high-flying oligarchy. As Khodorkovsky, “the man behind the mustache,” became Khodorkovsky, the Russian Steve Jobs—visionary leader and icon of transparency—he accrued more power than Putin could accept. He appeared poised to launch into politics when he was arrested and sentenced for tax evasion in 2003. Putin explained that Misha’s mother was sick (Khodorkovsky is famously attached to his mother), and 10 years is hard time, so he will be freed. However, Putin also waved off questions about a pending third case against Khodorkovsky that could see him whisked back to Siberia after his first meal of mom’s palmeni. According to one Russian news source, the “parent” case has become an inexhaustible source of charges, and guarantee that the sword of Damocles will be always over Khodorkovsky’s head.
The Other Amnesty
Beyond the issue of state harassment and re-incarceration, this remarkable amnesty comes after an earlier, far less-discussed amnesty, which pardoned numerous members of the business community who are, in fact, guilty of fraud, embezzlement, smuggling, etc. On the bigger picture, if an observer looks beyond the high profile figures who have represented the positive aspects of the big amnesty in the media, the character of the thing becomes radically different. Far from encouraging democratic protest, the little amnesty (which was initially discussed as an “economic amnesty”) can be viewed as encouraging corruption.
One of the more humorous instances that arose during the haggling over amnesty occurred in July, when the State Duma became riven by a debate over draft resolutions on then-called “economic amnesty” that had members of the Communist Party arguing that charges of bribery should be included under general amnesty, because small entrepreneurs are forced to bribe anyway. The Liberals and the Communists both split over the resolution, with the Communists eventually pegging the whole thing as “privilege for the rich” and “relief with respect to white-collar (belovorotnichkovoy) crime.”
Thus, both amnesties together bring mixed messages for the beleaguered Novoi Ruskie—the much-vaunted capitalist vanguard of the 1990s, many of whom began to flounder in the ruble crisis and have found economic hardship more than the anticipated yuppie-style success. There is the prospect of loosening up the state’s grasp on white-collar crime, met with freedom for the political prisoners, but there is also a feeling that political repression could persist in certain sectors.
Perhaps the last time a Russian leader granted such a magnanimous gesture came with Khrushchev’s famous thaw. Generally considered a doltish, crude, and incompetent head of state, Khrushchev tried to gain popularity by granting amnesty to dissidents and rehabilitated the reputations of victims of Stalin’s purges. It was a time of hazy alliances; expression of political opinions remained coded, the KGB continued its activity amongst dissidents, and the samizdat press operated in an environment of extreme tension.
The thaw of the late-1950s and early 60s came with Actually Existing Socialism, as an attempt to mitigate complaints that commodity shortages as well as political repression would follow Soviet influence into its satellite nations. Jokes circulated about the financial and social stagnation of the era, such as: “What is alcoholism? A transitional stage between Socialism and Communism.” Khrushchev would not hold power long, and his ouster came with relatively little excitement or denunciation.
It is interesting, then, that Khrushchev suddenly appeared in a headline of the right wing newspaper Vesti today: a new plaque is to be issued in honor of the unpopular figure in Moscow. The journalist reports didactically, “Putin gives careful treatment to every period of Russian history.” Really, it appears Khrushchev is receiving something of a rehabilitation, and Putin’s economic tilt has drawn comparisons to Khrushchev in terms of resource allocation and, in particular, housing construction. Putin’s five-year plans for housing are notorious, and second to only China in their forceful push towards unrealistic markers. The biggest sites of housing development are Sverdlovsk region, Belgorod region, and Krasnodar Krai—incidentally, also the site of the Sochi Olympics, which is the site of even grander development projects. Such massive planned developments can lead to many entanglements amongst supply chains, and critics have argued that today’s environment does not suit them well.
With economic amnesty, Putin is pardoning white-collar crime, which is one of the most important problems in Russia. This could be a move to encourage much needed venture capitalism in a marketplace with fixed targets for construction and no shortage of raw materials.
Beyond his grand aims at state planning, Putin appears to have defeated the EU in a battle for hegemony in Ukraine, the site of Khrushchev’s own ascent to power. The political amnesty could be an attempt to patch things up diplomatically after appearing to support the brutal repression of the movement in the streets of Kiev. This form of diplomacy is tied to similar actions by Ukraine’s government. After getting $15 billion in aid (“no strings attached”) from Russia, Ukraine’s government, led by Viktor Yanukovich, declared it would not crack down on the thousands of protestors occupying Independence Square, and insisted that the constitution and laws would be honored during the next election. In a marvelously symmetrical gesture to Putin’s, Yanukovich simultaneously proposed amnesty to all those engaged in the sweeping protests that have rocked Ukraine. As the Economist put it, “for Mr Putin, who once called the collapse of the Soviet Union the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century and who sees himself as a gatherer of Russian territories, no price is too high to keep Ukraine in Russia’s orbit.”
BRICS for Dinner Again
Although the Economist claims that Moscow’s actions will eventually push Ukraine away, the EU boosters appear to have only aided Putin’s position there. As some commentators have pointed out, Yanukovich was by no means the pro-Kremlin leader that politicians like John McCaine have made him out to be. In fact, Yanukovich even dropped an important pipeline project that Moscow sought to extend through the land in 2010, saying, “Our policy is directed to protection of our national interests. We do not live in a fairy tale and understand that our partners also defend their interests.” Russia’s interests in Ukraine as a pipeline for natural gas to Europe have been stoked by the “no strings attached” husbandry, and talks are to resume forthwith.
Indeed, amnesty appears to be the public face of a in a larger shift that does not involve only infrastructure or resources, but hegemony in a larger game between the EU and the BRICS countries. China has swept through Central Asia and brokered huge land and infrastructure deals in regions that are abandoning NATO for Russia’s sphere of security (in one paradigmatic example, China bought up the abandoned former US-airbase in Kyrgyzstan), and the world’s soon-to-be top consumer of food just bought up a full five percent of Ukraine’s land mass in what has been called the largest land grab to date in the contemporary Global Land Grab spanning, roughly, from 2007.
The land grab in Ukraine would not be so important if it was not for climate change. Ukraine, once referred to as “the bread basket of the Soviet Union,” had to place an export ban on wheat last year, due to a harsh growing season bringing low yields and high prices. With the crops in India, China, and Russia increasingly diminishing, China’s gambit in Eastern Europe may set the West’s teeth on edge—if they are not afraid of starvation for themselves, they are certainly cautious about rising food prices throughout the world.
In the end, it is possible that amnesty both in Ukraine and Russia function as valves to ameliorate the repercussions of political repression, on one hand, and to ease the flow of capital into crucial sectors of the economy by loosening the state’s grasp on white-collar crime. Perhaps such a grand gesture is necessary to herald a new era of political economy in Eurasia. For Obama’s part, the commutation of the sentences of 9 people serving life for non-violent crack offenses seems, at best, to be a facile deflection.
Alexander Reid Ross is a co-founding moderator of the Earth First! Newswire and editor of the forthcoming anthology Grabbing Back: Articles Against the Global Land Grab (AK Press 2014). He is also a contributor to Life During Wartime: Resisting Counterinsurgency (AK Press 2013).