Will Khodorkovsky′s release break German ice? | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 22.12.2013
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Will Khodorkovsky's release break German ice?

Mikhail Khodorkovsky is free - and German politicians are unusually praising President Vladimir Putin. Is this a sign of improving German-Russian relations?

Over recent months, German-Russian relations became ever more frosty, as Germans repeatedly raised questions about democracy and human rights in Russia - or more precisely, the lack of them. It is for this reason German President Joachim Gauck announced he would not travel to the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.

Added to this was Russian action in Ukraine: President Vladimir Putin made threats against the country if it signed an Association Agreement with the European Union - and President Viktor Yanukovych called it off in the last minute.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Hans-Dietrich Genscher (Photo: Reuters / handout)

Former German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher (r.) welcomed Khodorkovsky to Berlin

And now Putin has pardoned former oil tycoon and Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky - and German politicians feel their policy towards Russia has been vindicated, however mildly.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed the release. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called it "a good sign." And if thirty jailed Greenpeace activists and the members of the punk band Pussy Riot are released, it could signal "a new opportunity to intensify talks with Moscow," SPD politician Rolf Mützenich said.

Sochi, not sympathy

But German politicians are aware that relations can't be rebuilt that easily. Mützenich, in charge of foreign policy and human rights for the SPD parliamentary party, added: "There can be no question of a thaw."

Putin's decision evinces political calculation - but very little mercy: On February 7, in just over seven weeks, the Sochi Winter Olympics will begin. The preparations for the games have been a focus of anti-Putin protests. The link between Sochi and Khodorkovsky's pardon is "obvious," German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev (Photo: Oleg Nikishin/Getty Images)

Khodorkovsky and business partner Platon Lebedev were tried together after their company was seized

Khodorkovsky speaks out

But while some politicians are rejoicing at the uptick in German-Russian relations, the CDU's Andreas Schockenhoff takes a sober view: A pardon cannot replace a fair trial, the former German Commissioner for German-Russian Coordination told DW. "Khodorkovsky's conviction violated basic legal principles," he said. "Therefore we have to continue to criticize this form of politically controlled justice."

And the person best placed to offer this criticism did so after his release: "There are still many hostages still in prison who must be freed - especially Platon Lebedev," Khodorkovsky told the Kremlin-critical Moscow magazine "New Times," for which he also writes. Lebedev was his business partner in the oil company Yukos, which was broken up by the Russian government. He was sentenced together with Khodorkovsky on charges that included tax fraud in two trials that provoked international condemnation.

Sotschi / Russland / Olympia (Photo: MAXIM SHIPENKOV/EPA)

Few doubt the Sochi Olympics played a role in the release

In addition to high profile cases such as Khodorkovsky, Pussy Riot and the Greenpeace activists, there are "countless prisoners sentenced under questionable circumstances who have the right to a fair trial," Schockenhoff said.

And justice for some

One such case is that of geologist Yevgeny Vitishko, who belongs to "Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus," an organization of environmentalists protesting the ecological damage caused by the Sochi Olympics. The group has frequently been targeted by state prosecutors.

On the very day Khodorkovsky was released, a court in the Southern Russian town of Tuapse sentenced Vitishko to three years in a penal colony for parole violations. "Yevgeny Vitishko becomes a political prisoner of the 2014 Olympics," his organization wrote on Facebook. Rights group Freedom House said it deplored "the lack of respect for rule of law and authorities' harassment of human rights and environmental activists in what appears to be additional repression ahead of the Sochi games."

Reaching out

Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel (Photo: Reuters/Grigory Dukor)

A cordial but cold relation: Putin and Merkel

"These are individual humanitarian cases that we need to address," Mützenich said. "But we also need to try everything to discuss common interests in international politics with the current political leaders and to continue putting everything we have offered into practice in modernizing our partnership."

Schockenhoff agrees the current development is an opportunity that should be seized, no matter what motives were behind it. "We should always reach out towards Russia, and always offer cooperation." Germany and the EU ultimately want a modern, open Russia under the rule of law, in which corruption is actually fought: "And if Russia develops, we should welcome every step and always offer our partnership for the modernization of the country."

Perhaps this is most important thing at the moment: Both sides seem to want to improve relations. And at some point they may even be able to do so.

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