MOSCOW – Russian President Vladimir Putin stunned observers with a pardon of jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and an amnesty that will free two members of the jailed punk group Pussy Riot as well as dozens of anti-government protesters currently on trial.
The move came less than two months ahead of the Sochi Winter Olympics which Russia is hosting in February, and was widely seen as an attempt by Putin to improve his image at home and abroad.
"It's a PR move by the Kremlin. With the Olympic Games so close, it's important for the Kremlin to improve the country's image on the international arena," said Tatyana Lokshina, deputy director of the Moscow branch of Human Rights Watch.
Putin signed a decree on Friday pardoning former Yukos head Khodorkovsky, jailed in 2003 on charges of fraud and tax evasion that were widely considered politically-motivated. Earlier on Thursday, Putin told journalists that Khodorkovsky had formally asked for a pardon.
Khodorkovsky was freed from prison on Friday afternoon and immediately flew to Germany.
Putin's surprise announcement Thursday came just a day after Russia's parliament passed an amnesty commemorating the 20th anniversary of Russia's constitution. While the amnesty did not apply to Khodorkovsky, it would see some 20,000 prisoners freed.
Among those to be freed as part of the amnesty are Pussy Riot members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina, who are serving two-year terms on charges of hooliganism and inciting religious hatred for an protest dance stunt in Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral in February 2012.
The amnesty will also apply to 28 Greenpeace activists on trial for hooliganism over their September protest against oil drilling in the Arctic Sea. It will also eventually clear several protesters currently on trial over their alleged involvement in clashes with police during an anti-government rally on Moscow's Bolotnaya Square on the eve of Putin's inauguration in May 2012.
A Moscow court terminated cases against four protesters on Thursday, while the rest of those affected by the amnesty will be freed within several months, according to Russia's Federal Prison Service.
"The people affected are those widely referred to as political prisoners," Lokshina says. "Putin has made the gesture of a tsar who can either execute or pardon at will. That was why Khodorkovsky's release was not part of the amnesty, but a presidential pardon."
According to pro-Kremlin analyst Sergei Markov, the amnesty goes back to a Soviet tradition of pardoning prisoners on certain anniversaries.
"Putin is a conservative with traditionalist views. An amnesty expresses the humanistic essence of the government," said Markov, who is prorector of the Plekhanov Russian University of Economics.
"As for his pardon of Khodorkovsky, it's also a pretty harsh joke, in Putin's style, because today is Day of the Chekist," a day commemorating Russia's security services, of which Putin is a veteran.
In his time in prison on politically tinged charges of tax evasion and embezzlement, Khodorkovsky, 50, turned from a powerful oligarch into a respected dissident, becoming a political thinker who argued for social justice and placed the blame on Putin for Russia's stagnating economy.
Khodorkovsky was Russia's richest man, worth billions of dollars, and the CEO of the country's largest oil company when he was arrested on the tarmac of a Siberian airport and charged with tax evasion.
Khodorkovsky's oil company Yukos was effectively crushed under the weight of a $28 billion back-tax bill. Yukos was sold off. Most of it went to state oil company Rosneft, allowing the Kremlin to reassert control of the country's oil business and silence Khodorkovsky.