MOSCOW (AP) — In a few breathtaking hours, one-time oil baron Mikhail Khodorkovsky went from being a prisoner locked away for a decade in the remote depths of northern Russia to being a free man in Berlin. As he sped between those extremes, questions trailed behind.
Most prominently: Why Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to pardon the man who was once Russia's richest and one of the few with both the boldness and resources to challenge him.
Putin said he decided to approve Khodorkovsky's pardon application and let him walk free on Friday for humanitarian reasons — his mother is seriously ill. The way he announced it, in a scrum of journalists after his annual marathon news conference less than 24 hours earlier, had an air of spur-of-the-moment.
But there appears to have been considerable calculation behind it, and analysts saw it as a show of power and arrogance by the man who has dominated Russian politics since the turn of the millennium.
In the first burst of surprise after the pardon was announced, many speculated that Putin wanted to soften Russia's baleful image in the countdown to the Winter Olympics, his signature project, which starts Feb. 7 in Sochi.
"Rubbish," wrote Lilia Shevtsova of the Carnegie Moscow think-tank. "Putin has been all along demonstrating all signs that he does not care any more what the world is thinking of him. He has been showing the opposite: that he views world leaders as pathetic weaklings who can be ignored."
Although Putin is hypersensitive to opposition and has launched a series of measures over the past year and a half that chill dissent, he appears to have calculated that 10 years as an inmate has tamed the 50-year-old Khodorkovsky.
"Putin understood that Khodorkovsky is not a revolutionary, that his priority goal for all of what remains of his life is the desire not to return to the place he was for the last 10 years," wrote Stanislav Belkovsky, a political analyst and former Kremlin insider.
Khodorkovsky's arrest by special forces who stormed his plane at a Siberian airport and his subsequent trials were widely seen as revenge for defying Putin's dictate that the country's narrow circle of billionaire tycoons, dubbed "oligarchs," stay out of politics. Behind bars, he became the leading symbol of anxiety about Russia's questionable rule of law.
But despite becoming a much sought-after columnist in prison, writing for leading Russian media and corresponding with prominent Russian authors, Khodorkovsky often seemed overshadowed by new controversies — the imprisonment of art-punk provocateurs Pussy Riot, the arrest of Greenpeace activists, the passage of a law banning "gay propaganda" for minors.
Notably, during the four-hour news conference Thursday, Khodorkovsky's name didn't even come up, though one question was about the possibility of another trial related to his former Yukos oil company.
His release and arrival in Germany on Friday vaults him back into the spotlight. But Putin, who has built much of his tough image on denouncing "interference" from the West, is unlikely to worry much about criticism from afar and it is unclear if Khodorkovsky ever intends to return to Russia.
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