With the first post-release press conference attracting hundreds of journalists in Berlin, Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky has gained a place in the international spotlight. Russia Direct looks at how Russian and foreign media have been interpreting his pardon and its implications for Russia.

Freed Russian former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky speaks at his news conference in Berlin on Dec. 22. Photo: Reuters

The release of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russian oligarch and former head of the Yukos oil company, elicited a huge response from Russian and foreign media outlets. Meanwhile, his first press conference that took place on Dec. 22 in Berlin fueled debates about the image of Russia abroad and the future of Khodorkovsky, who spent 10 years in prison on charges of embezzlement and tax fraud.

At the press conference, Khodorkovsky expressed hope his pardon wouldn’t translate into the belief that there are no political prisoners left in Russia. Some people are still in jail and they need to be helped, he said.

"There are other political prisoners who are still left in Russia; not only those related to the Yukos criminal case," he said. "I would like to say that you should not see me as a sign that there are no more political prisoners in Russia.  I'm asking you to see me as a symbol of the efforts of the civil society that could even lead to the release of those people that nobody ever expected to see released."

Both Russian and Western media are divided about the implications of the Khodorkovsky release and his image. While some media see him as a future spiritual leader, other argues that he lost his image of martyr pointing out to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s moral victory. Meanwhile, some journalists still believe that Khodorkovsky and his heft remain a challenge for Putin.   

A new type of dissident

According to the Vedomosti newspaper, a liberal media outlet, the recent news indicates that the case is politically motivated. 

“The release looks like a part of the deal with secret details,” an editorial of the newspaper says, pointing out that Khodorkovsky might have been pardoned because he refused to claim the assets of the former YUKOS company. In addition, the newspaper points our how his release may be beneficial to Putin for image-making purposes and publicity before the Sochi Olympics and ahead of Russia’s Chairmanship of the G8 summit. Vedomosti also mentions other rumoured explanations for the the release, including the involvement of “secret German diplomacy” and the geopolitical challenges represented by the recent events in Ukraine.

“Each of these versions suggests that there was a certain price for the release, which should be agreed on with Putin,” the editorial says.   

Vedomosti argues that the decision to pardon Khodorkovsky might have a mixed effect on Putin’s image abroad: Putin’s mercy will be seen in a positive light by supporters of authoritarian forms of government, while democratic systems will interpret the move in a more negative way, as the West continues to see Russia as “a closed autocracy, ruled exclusively by Putin.”   

Freed Russian former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky speaks at his news conference in Berlin on Dec. 22. Photo: Reuters

Khodorkovsky’s press conference in Berlin and his statement on the existence of other political prisoners behind bars indicate that political prosecutions are still commonplace in Russia, the newspaper argues. “In this respect, Khodorkovsky looks like a hostage,” it clarifies. “In fact, Khodorkovsky is exiled from the country; likewise, in Soviet times the authorities did the same with dissidents.”

“Can the release of Khodorkovsky ‘erase’ all that resulted from his arrest?” asks another Vedomosti’s editorial published shortly after the release of Khodorkovsky. “No. The consequences are too serious. [...] So far, it seems very unlikely that the publicity gained from the pardon will heal the 10-year wounds given to the Russian economy and society: Investment won’t come back, closed and not created businesses won’t appear again, emigrants won’t return. It is necessary to work hard and persuade many people that the hunting season is over. Over 10 years, a long-lasting system has taken shape. And Khodorkovsky himself is no longer a threat to this system.”

Kommersant newspaper argues that Khodorkovsky might become a leading figure among the public. Although the politicians interviewed by Kommersant don’t expect Khodorkovsky’s release to bring about political change in Russia, he may become a spiritual leader, according to the head of the Moscow Helsinki Group NGO Lyudmila Alexeeva. “We need a spiritual leader,” she said, “and I am sure that he will become a spiritual leader of the stature of Andrei Sakharov [Russian nuclear physicist, anti-Soviet dissident and human rights activist], for example.” 

The release of Khodorkovsky brought some credits to Putin and to a certain extent improved his image both abroad and within Russia, but at the same time Germany’s role in the case put the personality of Khodorkovsky on the international stage, argues the former editor-in-chief of the Moscow Bureau of the BBC and Kommersant FM expert Konstantin Eggert in his column. Eggert, who compares Khodorkovsky to Nelson Mandela, remains hesitant about the political ambitions of the former head of Yukos.

“Khodorkovsky doesn’t want to take his revenge on Putin, he won’t struggle with Rosneft [Russia’s largest oil company] for his former property and won’t engage in politics,” he writes. “Any of these steps – carefully speaking – would immediately end his social prospects.”

In addition, Eggert points to the personal transformation of Khodorkovsky after 10 years of imprisonment. According to the journalist, the oligarch became more religious, finding faith in God after his incarceration.

“Mikhail Khodorkovsky has built a new system of coordinate for himself,” Eggert said. “Soon we will know if there is any demand for it in Russia.”

According to the Izvestia newspaper, the release of Khodorkovsky indicates that the Kremlin fulfilled one of the demands of the opposition protesters, by releasing people that are widely seen as political prisoners.  

The newspaper believes that Khodorkovsky is hardly likely to gain much from the pardon granted by Putin. After his premature release, he lost the image of martyr who served his term up to the end, argues Izvestia columnist Vladislav Vdovin.

Freed Russian former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky speaks at his news conference in Berlin on Dec. 22. Photo: Reuters

“Because of this ending, the whole [Khodorkovsky] saga has been spoiled a little, lost the part of its value, like it happened with the assets of the [Yukos] oil company after the beginning of the Yukos case,” Vdovin claims, pointing out that the pardon damages Khodorkovsky’s reputation. Vdovin sees Putin in this case as “a moral winner”. Even critics of Putin announced sudden respect for the president and the irrelevance of the term “ blood regime,” he claims, describing Putin’s move as an act of mercy and a big favor.

“He [Putin] is not a sadist, and he pulled Khodorkovsky out of the prison,” Vdovin wrote. “Now it looks like he would have done it even earlier, if the prisoner hadn’t persisted.”

Khodorkovsky: Still a challenge for Putin?  

The Economist sees the release as “a sign of the former tycoon's strength” and of Putin's weakness. However, the magazine seems to be skeptical about the possible impact of Khodorkovsky’s release on Russian politics.

“[...] whereas Mr. Khodorkovsky’s imprisonment can be seen as a turning point in Russian history, because it changed the balance of power in the country, his release is not,” it reads. “And unlike the return from exile of Andrei Sakharov, a nuclear physicist and dissident, which was part of Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberalisation, the release of Mr. Khodorkovsky is a purely tactical move.”

Answering the question why Putin released Khodorkovsky only now, The Economist assumes that the Russian leader made an attempt to get credit for his presidency. 

“The Kremlin tried to spin the decision as a sign of Mr Putin’s strength: a Russian leader boosted by recent foreign-policy triumphs in Syria and Ukraine magnanimously pardons his enemies,” it said. “The Kremlin was also keen to present the story as an admission of guilt by Mr. Khodorkovsky (something he denies, as his own statement).”

The New York Times sees Khodorkovsky’s release as “an abrupt and stunning end to an episode that has marked a darkly authoritarian turn for Russia under President Vladimir V. Putin, while sending a fearsome warning to the rest of the elite, oligarch class.”

Although Khodorkovsky promised not to engage in politics, he might still pose a threat to Putin’s publicity abroad, according to the New York Times.

“While serving time in prison for embezzlement, Mr. Khodorkovsky emerged as a powerful dissident voice, criticizing Mr. Putin’s consolidation of authority in the Kremlin and heavy-handed efforts to suppress dissent,” it says, assuming that “his role as a critic was not yet done”.

Likewise, BBC argues that given his heft, influence abroad and modern technologies, Khodorkovsky may be a challenge for Putin from the point of view of building a positive image abroad. 

“In our era of global internet connections, his voice and comments can still reverberate back into Russia in a matter of milliseconds - unless of course he has agreed not to become a thorn in President Putin's side again, but to limit his activities to non-political interests,” wrote BBC diplomatic correspondent Bridget Kendall in her article. “All that is for the future - details of his release have yet to be revealed and scenarios yet to be tested.”