The holiday season brings out the spirit of forgiveness in everyone – even Russia’s strongman in the Kremlin. Vladimir Putin decided to engage in a spree of pardons in recent weeks, freeing political opponents left and right. The pardons were extended to two members of the all-girl punk band Pussy Riot, who were imprisoned after publicly protesting against Putin with a performance, former billionaire and once Russia’s richest man Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and finally a group of thirty Greenpeace activists who had been arrested for protesting Russian drilling activities in the Arctic.
As things are with Vladimir Putin, it’s far likelier that the pardons were the result of a process of political calculation and not a temporary lapse of his everyday political acumen. Observers have speculated that Putin’s calculus about Russia’s public image might be changing ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics, which will be hosted by Russia in Sochi. Maria Alyokhina, one of the Pussy Riot members to have received amnesty, said, according to the New York Times that the pardon “had been intended only to bolster the image of Mr. Putin and Russia before the Winter Olympics in Sochi.”
Additionally, the trials of Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine demonstrate that Russia may have an important perception problem in Europe – that mass protests would erupt against Yanukovych’s decision to remain aligned with Putin’s Russia speaks volumes.
Traditionally, image issues haven’t bothered Putin, who is equal parts nostalgic for the heyday of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union loomed as a great power deserving of global respect, and resentful of a world that has somewhat “moved on” from Russia. Europe moved away form its eastern fixation with the reunification of Germany and the Maastricht Treaty that created the European Union. On its eastern front, China draws all the attention – leaving Russia in some purgatorial state of great power-dom where it finds itself nebulously lumped in with Brazil, India, China and South Africa as an emerging economy.
The proximity of Sochi and the Ukraine protests might not be the only factors driving Putin’s pardon spree. Earlier this year, Putin freed charismatic political wunderkind Alexei Navalny in a sudden decision which shocked many. Navalny is seen by many to as Putin’s most formidable political opponent The freed members of Pussy Riot will reportedly form a human rights organization with Navalny to fight against Putin’s rule in Russia. Allowing Navalny his freedom and the ability to (unsuccessfully) contest Moscow’s mayoral election nominally showed Putin to be tolerant of democratic competition in a formal electoral setting (let’s leave the question of fairness aside for now). Similarly, the more recent amnesty decisions could allow Putin to gain a modicum of democratic legitimacy by claiming to allow his opponents to roam free, instead of imprisoning them. The latter is far too easy for Western observers to criticize, after all.
Joshua Tucker, a professor at New York University, postulated on The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog that Putin was touched by the global reaction to Nelson Mandela’s passing and may be developing a sensitivity to his own legacy for reasons of pure ego. Tucker is careful not to pursue this line of thought too seriously, but it remains a hypothesis worth contemplating – Putin will be around for years to come in Russia and now may be time for him to begin thinking about his legacy more seriously.
The simplest explanation is usually the most correct in these circumstances – Russia under Putin has an image problem and these amnesty decisions represent a modest start in addressing these issues. As the Sochi Winter Olympics gear up, Putin (and the world) would appreciate a depoliticization of the environment in Russia. While the United States did not boycott the Olympics in Russia, President Obama did decided that his schedule would not permit him to attend – a power signal by some measures. Should Putin take action to respond to European and U.S. complaints about its oppressive laws on homosexuality, that might demonstrate a stronger signal that Putin is changing, and beginning to care what the outside world thinks of Russia and his leadership.