Amnesty for Pussy Riot and a pardon for jailed former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. But Putin's "softer side" is not a sign of weakness. In fact, the Russian president is stronger than ever, says DW's Ingo Mannteufel.
Just one day after his sudden announcement following a four-hour long press conference, Russian President Vladimir Putin has made good on his word: he has officially pardoned former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose release is expected in the near future. But the Russian president didn’t stop there. After granting amnesty to Pussy Riot band members and the Greenpeace Arctic Sunrise protesters, Putin managed within a matter of days to invalidate some of the key criticisms of his recent government.
Western countries in particular had strongly criticized the imprisonment of Khodorkovsky, the Pussy Riot activists and the Greenpeace crew. The prisoners were all symbols of a politically motivated and arbitrary justice system within the country. They also were considerable obstacles when it came to improving international cooperation with Russia.
The Sochi factor
Improving the West's view of Russia ahead of the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi in February 2014 was certainly also a factor. Putin wants to polish Russia's global image and present the country at its best. The ongoing imprisonment of political opponents and critics - criticized by Western politicians for years - simply stood in the way of this goal.
But it would be wrong to assume that Western pressure, let alone weakness, had forced Putin to show leniency against Khodorkovsky, Pussy Riot or the Arctic Sunrise activists. His main motivation was quite another. Nationally and internationally, Putin sees himself at the height of his power and in a position to deal with the political issues that have plagued his time in office.
Height of power
Snowden, Syria, Ukraine: In Putin's eyes, these are his greatest foreign policy accomplishments for 2013. And inside Russia, his power is more undisputed than ever before. In addition to having a firm grip on the state and its representatives, key business players and the media, a broad majority of Russians also approve of his political program and its national-conservative social ideology. This provides a stable foundation for Putin's power, even at a time when a stagnating economy means reductions to the social services provided by the state.
What's more, Russia positioning itself as a stronghold for conservative and traditional values presents the country as a "soft power." After years of the West reminding Russia and Putin of European values, he has turned the tables with an ultra-conservative interpretation of traditionally Christian values. According to this interpretation, the liberal, Christian West has betrayed its values by showing tolerance for lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgender groups.
For the first time since the collapse of communist Soviet Union, Putin has managed to develop a specifically Russian political ideology that has the same effects domestically and internationally.
With this in mind, the pardon and amnesties for his former political opponents allow Putin to do away with relics of the past that he no longer needs to hold on to. Moreover the people concerned would have been freed soon anyway: Khodorkovsky was due for release in August 2014, and Pussy Riot activist Nadezhda Tolokonnikova in March 2014. The pardons and amnesties now let them get out of prison a few months earlier, but they also allow Putin to present himself as a lenient leader, scoring more points in what he sees as an already successful 2013. While that may all be the case, he has not embarked on a new political path toward a more constitutional state.