Russia’s best-known prisoner has been freed, after spending more than 10 years in jail.
After receiving a pardon from President Vladimir Putin on Friday, the former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky is in Germany, where he’s expected to meet with his mother.
For now, he’s not saying much in public beyond a statement thanking supporters, but his sudden release has raised a storm of speculation in Russia.
Within hours of the announcement that Putin had granted the pardon, Khodorkovsky was on a private jet that whisked him to Berlin.
Khodorkovsky was once the head of the giant Yukos oil company, the richest man in Russia, and the most powerful rival to Vladimir Putin.
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.”
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.
Human rights groups, such as Amnesty International, described them as political prisoners.
Through all that time, Khodorkovsky never admitted guilt, and never asked for mercy — which is why his sudden request for a pardon came as a surprise to many in Russia.
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.
To some people, especially in the West, Khodorkovsky came to be viewed as a figure like Nelson Mandela, enobled by suffering and ready to lead his country to a new kind of society.
Dmitri Babich, a political commentator at the state-run Voice of Russia radio, says most Russians aren’t buying that image. Babich says that most Russians still believe that those oligarchs, including Khodorkovsky, who amassed incredible fortunes during the 1990s, could never have done it honestly.
“The problem is that most people in Russia have the opinion that you have to choose: Either you are Nelson Mandela, or you are an oligarch,” Babich says. “You can’t be both.”
Shevtsova isn’t predicting what Khodorkovsky may do now that he’s been released, but she says the extent of Putin’s power and his confidence have been revealed by his decision to grant a pardon to his former enemy.
Compared with that tsar-like power, she says, Khodorkovsky has a certain stature in the Russian consciousness.
“It’s very difficult to tell what Khodorkovsky’s future is, but one thing is pretty certain: Khodorkovsky has moral authority, which is such a rare thing in this country,” Shevtsova says.