As Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former Yukos head imprisoned since 2003, readies to leave for Germany, RD expert Dmitry Polikanov sheds light on the president's motivating principles and the effect on his image.

Former Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovsky is reported to have already flown to Germany, where his mother is undergoing medical treatment. Source: Reuters

Vladimir Putin has again managed to make global news. His “by-the-way” aside concerning Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s potential pardon boosted the Russian stock exchange, excited the expert community and focused the foreign media.

And now that the erstwhile Yukos oil tycoon and longtime prisoner has walked free, one asks, why did Putin choose this moment? Firstly, it is an attempt to break the trend in his media war with the Western press, not unlike Putin’s address to the U.S. public through The New York Times. He is signaling that there should be no hysteria about Russia’s domestic and foreign policy and the country does not claim for the status of “evil empire.” The Russian President has chosen the most efficient tool to convey this message by appearing to put an end to the Khodorkovsky saga, the symbol of the “siloviki” rule.

Another reason for the news is a clearly a renewed effort to improve Russia’s image before the Sochi Olympics in February. It is crucial for Vladimir Putin that the Sochi winter games come off as an international mega-event. After all, as an experienced politician, he realizes that “the winner takes it all.” A successful Olympics will dispel all skepticism over the costs and allegations of financial fraud over construction in Sochi.

Thirdly, the Russian government agrees that the economic situation is clouded, if not gloomy. Most of the internal economic drivers are exhausted and it is quite difficult to improve the morale for Russian and foreign investors. As First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov has recently stressed, Russians are still not willing to create business and support the spirit of entrepreneurship.

As the authorities tighten financial control and undertake complex social decisions (such as pension reform), business is starving for good news. Aware of the fact that the modern economy relies as much on psychological speculation as “real production,” Putin strikes back, feeding the financial world with political carrots.

Putin makes the agenda. He confronts the social upheaval about gay rights and Ukrainian unrest in Maidan with pragmatic economic and political news. He appeals to traditional conservative values understandable to the majority of the global population and connects the new Russian ideology like a jigsaw puzzle. And the Khodorkovsky piece is a piece of this table game.

And again he does it without changing his own reputation. First of all, he takes away Khodorkovsky’s spiritually strong martyr image. He grants parole on the basis of Khodorkovsky’s application, which is possible only if the applicant admits guilt.

Finally, by letting Khodorkovsky go, the Russian President demonstrates that he doesn’t fear the opposition and does not believe he has a serious rival. Besides, Putin proves once again that he is the only decision-maker in the country – and there can be no better symbolic act than to grant the unexpected amnesty.

The parole of Khodorkovsky is nearly a Christmas story. And just like with Gerard Depardieu last year, the Russians will no doubt have lively discussions during the long New Year holidays.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.