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Emptying Russia's Prisons to Fill the Seats at Sochi 2014

Categories: Eastern & Central Europe, Russia, Governance, Human Rights, International Relations, Politics, Protest, Sport, Olympics, RuNet Echo
Some of Russia's newly freed, prominent former political prisoners. From left to right, Maria Baronova, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Images mixed by Kevin Rothrock.

Some of Russia's newly freed, prominent former political prisoners. From left to right, Maria Baronova, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Images mixed by Kevin Rothrock.

Many Russian bloggers believe that the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi next year played a major role in the amnesty last week that freed both the “Arctic Sunrise” Greenpeace activists and the famous Pussy Riot rockers, as well as the pardon handed down to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who immediately fled Russia to Berlin. Putin, the theory goes, is eager to save face and avoid an Olympic boycott by world leaders, though five of the other seven G8 countries have already indicated that their leaders will not travel to Sochi next February (France, Great Britain, Canada, the United States, and perhaps even Germany).

The Higher School of Economics’ Yulia Galyamina wrote [1] on her Facebook wall:

Путин пытается сделать хорошую мину перед Олимпиадой в Сочи, мотивы его низменны, но несколько свободных человек – это все равно счастье.

Putin is trying to put on a good face before the Olympics in Sochi. His motives are base, but I can think of a few now free, very happy people who couldn't care less about that.

Not everyone embraced the idea that the amnesty and pardon were an effort to rescue the Olympics. Commenting on past rumors that a third set of charges awaits Khodorkovsky and the fact that his mother is elderly and in poor health, Kiril Rogov wrote on Facebook [2]:

Все “третье дело” и болезнь матери – были обыкновенным шантажом, с помощью которого у Ходорковского выбивали согласие на помилование. На кону восе не олимпиада и не возможность широкого жеста под новый год, а – как всегда – деньги.

Everything about a “third trial” and an ill mother was just ordinary blackmail, which [the Kremlin] used to beat Khodorkovsky into submitting to the pardon. At stake was not the Olympics or the possibility of a broad New Year's gesture, but—as always—money.

Oleg Makarenko, blogger fritzmorgen [3], was also skeptical that Putin freed Khodorkovsky because of the Olympics.

Версия «Олимпиада» представляется мне смешной. На Олимпиаде лозунги «свободу Ходорковскому» популярностью не пользовались бы в любом случае, там протесты будут, в основном, под девизом «слава Содомии»….

Плакаты о Ходорковском на фоне радужных флагов выглядели бы совершенно нелепо. Очевидно, причина не в Олимпиаде.

The “Olympics” version seems ridiculous to me. At the Olympics, slogans advocating “freedom for Khodorkovsky” would not have generated much popularity in any event. There will be protests [in Sochi], but mostly under the slogan: “Glory to Sodomy”….

Posters of Khodorkovsky against the backdrop of rainbow flags would look absolutely ridiculous. Obviously, the reason is not the Olympics.

Makarenko went on to suggest that an anti-corruption crackdown will begin in the spring, after the Olympics in Sochi, and Khodorkovsky’s release is a message to future prisoners that Putin is willing to negotiate.

Kommersant journalist Olga Allenova bemoaned [4]:

Само по себе это освобождение перекроет все нарушения прав человека в РФ, весь беспредел в Сочи, всю жуть на Кавказе, – олимпиада владимировна пройдет под бурные аплодисменты, все приедут, даже француз, а ВВП может спокойно править еще мильен лет, вообще не парясь ни о правах, ни о свободах.

В итоге он опять выигрывает.

Как всегда.

Это просто невероятно, как они научились это делать.

By itself, this release will override all human rights violations in Russia, all the lawlessness in Sochi, all the horror in the Caucasus—the Olympics of Vladimir will be held under a storm of applause, everybody will come, even the Frenchman, and VVP can comfortably rule a million more years, never being bothered about either rights or liberties.

In the end, he wins again.

As always.

It is just unbelievable how they learned to do it.

For his part, Khodorkovsky says he opposes a boycott of the Olympic games, stating [5]:

As to Sochi, my position is that it is a sports festival; it is a festival for millions of people and perhaps we should not spoil it. Another thing is that we should not make it into a personal festival for President Putin — perhaps that would not be right either. However, I would not ruin a festival for millions of people.

Meanwhile, Russia's silver medalist political prisoner, Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, demanded [6] a total boycott of the Olympics, in comments to journalists following her release from prison on December 23, 2013:

Now, however, I am calling for a boycott, for honesty, I am calling for all of us not to sell ourselves for all this oil and gas that Russia can give. I am calling for all humanistic standards, traditions, and regulations to be applied — the norms that Europe is promoting.

The true reasons for Khodorkovsky's sudden release and the amnesty that freed the final two members of Pussy Riot remain a mystery. If the theory is correct that these acts of mercy are tied to a Kremlin effort to salvage “Sochi 2014,” it will be important to watch the next few weeks, to see if any Western leaders change their minds about attending the Winter Games.