Most of Russia’s presidential candidates, with the exception of Vladimir Putin, have promised to free jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky if elected in March. Analysts say this commitment is due to a desire to expand their support base and capitalize on a growing belief among Russians that the former Yukos head has been unfairly treated.
Once Russia’s richest man, Khodorkovsky and his business partner Platon Lebedev were arrested in 2003 on fraud charges that Khodorkovsky supporters claim were revenge for his independent political activity. The Kremlin has consistently denied the allegation.
The two men were sentenced to an additional six years on new embezzlement charges in December 2010, shortly before their release date.
While a pledge to free the former businessman seems natural for billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov and the leader of Russia’s liberal Yabloko party, Grigory Yavlinsky, similar declarations by veteran Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov and the left-leaning A Just Russia party leader Sergei Mironov were less predictable.
“I think humanity and mercy should be shown,” Zyuganov told journalists on Wednesday. “Khodorkovsky has already served quite a long sentence.”
Nikolai Petrov from the Carnegie Moscow Center, said such “populist” declarations were driven by the intention of the candidates to demonstrate their “conditional independence” from the Kremlin, without risking “the benefits of cooperation.”
This does not mean, he said, that the majority of Russians would be happy to see the oligarch freed, but if Putin's competitors "see that an active part of society supports Khodorkovsky's release, they are ready to take on board the slogan."
Growing support for Khodorkovsky's release
If the original jailing of Khodorkovsky in 2003 enjoyed broad public support, his second conviction – which many legal experts have said was based on fabricated evidence – has seen the trend reversed.
A survey conducted by the independent Levada Center pollster in late September-early October 2011 indicated that 31 percent of Russians back Khodorkovsky’s release, compared to 19 percent in 2007.
Just 20 percent of those polled said they would keep the 48-year-old businessman behind bars, a drop from 44 percent in 2007.
The Russian authorities have strongly dismissed allegations by Western observers that Khodorkovsky’s 2010 trial was politically motivated, with the European Court of Human Rights supporting the Russian stance in its September 2011 ruling.
Khodorkovsky has dismissed the ruling, describing it in an interview published on Wednesday in the Finnish Helsingin Sanomat newspaper as a “concession” to the Russian authorities.
Alexei Mukhin from the Moscow-based Center for Political Information said the presidential candidates’ promises to release the businessman were aimed at “those people who expected that the disgraced oligarch would be able to take part in the 2012 presidential elections.”
Zyuganov is “very interested in repeating his success in the 1996 elections in order to challenge Putin in the second round,” he said, adding: “This would increase his success as a politician many times over, and he is ready to use any methods to achieve this.”
In the 1996 presidential vote, Zyuganov faced Russia’s first president Boris Yeltsin in a runoff after narrowly losing the first round. In the runoff, some 40 percent of voters supported the Communist leader, while 53 percent chose to back Yeltsin.
With only 45 percent of Russians ready to vote for Putin in the upcoming polls, according to the latest survey by the state-run VTSiOM pollster, analysts have not ruled out a runoff in the March elections. Zyuganov, who enjoys the support of 10 percent of Russians, according to the poll, is seen as Putin’s most likely competitor in a possible second round.
'People want someone to be punished'
The Levada Center survey has indicated only 10 percent of Russians believe the businessman’s second trial was fair, compared with 19 percent in a similar poll conducted some ten months earlier, just weeks after the sentence was announced.
More than one fourth of those polled (27 percent) said they believed the businessman’s second prison sentence was ordered by the authorities. The figure was 5 percentage points higher than in the previous poll.
But despite the controversy over Khodorkovsky’s jailing, many ordinary Russians still see him as one of the notorious oligarchs who amassed great personal wealth through shadowy deals in the chaos of post-Soviet Russia.
Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of the nationalist Liberal Democratic party, who also intends to challenge Putin in the March vote, said in late December he believed Khodorkovsky could be freed after the elections.
“Our people want someone to be punished, but in fact, many other oligarchs have not been punished,” he said. “But in 2012, after the presidential elections, this issue is likely to be solved in favor of Khodorkovsky’s pardoning,” he added.
Mironov, whose A Just Russia has long been seen as a satellite of the pro-Kremlin United Russia in the parliament, echoed his comments by saying he believed Khodorkovsky has “paid for what he has done” and that the time has come to free him.
Putin’s stance without change
But irrespective of their promises, the man most likely to decide on the businessman’s immediate fate is Vladimir Putin, and he has not signaled any change in his position. It may take a runoff, but most analysts agree that Putin will secure a third stint in the Kremlin.
Commenting on Khodorkovsky’s ongoing trial in December 2010, Putin described the tycoon as a “thief” who “belongs behind bars.” However, he recently said that he would consider an appeal for a pardon from Khodorkovsky if he becomes president – but only if the businessman admits his guilt, something Khodorkovsky has said he will never do. Khodorkovsky has filed two appeals for release, in August 2008 and in May 2011, but both were rejected.
“If he writes such an appeal, I will consider it,” Putin said.
“He did not say ‘We are ready to free him if he pleads guilty.’ He has set [Khodorkovsky’s] confession as a necessary condition for him to consider his release, meaning ‘You must confess – and then we will see,’” Carnegie Moscow Center analyst Petrov noted.
“I don’t think he will release Khodorkovsky if he does not admit that his punishment was fair,” he added.