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The Best Thing (so far) about the Winter Olympics in Sochi – the release of Khodorkovsky and what it

Mikhail Khodorkovsky at his first press conference after his release from prison. Who knows what the Games may yet bring, but for now the highlight of the 2014 Winter Olympics is unquestionably the liberation of Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

The former Russian oligarch’s release by virtue of a pardon by the Russian President after a decade of imprisonment is designed first and foremost to put Russia in a more favourable light as the Olympics approach. The Games are meant to be the signal event of the Putin Presidencies. But they have been getting a bad press. They are expected to cost fifty billion dollars, five times over budget. Opposition figure Boris Nemtsov (who is from Sochi) has claimed that thirty billion has ended up lining the politics of Putin’s political pals. Hard to tell, but it is worth noting that the Vancouver Winter Olympics came in at six billion.

Other issues hang over the Games. Sochi has a near tropical environment (I have sunbathed on its beach in June),which has required the amassing of huge amounts of snow from other localities in advance of the event. So, in addition to the mass stealing of state resources, climate may have something to do with the inflation of costs. Apart from that, while Sochi has little white stuff, it has, in the nearby northern Caucasus, major insurgencies that pit locals against the Russian state. It is feared that one or the other of these groups could try to steal the Olympic spotlight. To top things off, several western leaders have decided -in view of oppressive Russian anti-gay legislation, among other issues – not to attend the Olympics. There is lots of rain on Mr Putin’s parade.

I wonder whether Putin recalls the celebration organised in 1971 by the then Shah of Iran to celebrate the 2500th anniversary of the founding of the Persian Empire. The extravagance and hubris associated with this event grated with the Iranian population. Eight years later the Shah was to flee into exile.

Several commentators, in both Russia and the West, have claimed that Khodorkovsky’s liberation is a testament to Putin’s strength as 2013 draws to a close. I concede that Putin has recently scored several significant political victories.

• He outfoxed Obama on Syria.

• He scored a coup in granting asylum to the American whistleblower Edward Snowdon.

• He seems to have deflected Ukraine’s gravitation towards the European Union and the West, at least for now. (Recent opinion polls suggest that the Russian population is overwhelmingly in favour of protecting the links between Russia and Ukraine, but apparently only a very small portion of the Russian body politic approves of the financial concessions afforded Ukraine- and they are probably right in view of the way that the current Ukrainian government has mismanaged and stolen resources – by the way, just like its counterpart in Russia).

• Forbes magazine has named Putin their Man of the Year.

• And in the midst of the holiday season, Putin has people talking about the clemency he has afforded Khodorkhovsky, Pussy Riot and the Greenpeace Thirty, not the systemic abuse of political and human rights that has occurred under his lengthy tenure. Not bad for a former KGB agent!

Other commentators – a minority -focus on the Christmas pardons as a manifestation of Putin’s weakening grip. The later camp includes one of the Pussy Riot activists who framed her release as a manifestation of the Russian President’s growing political frailty. Part of me is with her on this but another part of me says to me that this may not be the entire story.

Putin will be well conscious of the fact that the strategic picture for Russia going forward is highly problematical. He will know that the Russia of 2013 has several albatrosses around its neck. There follows a short-list.

Corruption in Russia is not just a problem affecting the Olympics. It is endemic. Opinion polls regularly confirm that this is one of the key issues shaping the perceptions of men and women on the Russian street. Putin often preaches about the perils of corruption but despite the creation of numerous anti-corruption agencies – at last count, eleven – this scourge seems impervious to the government’s counter-efforts. This is no doubt in large part due to its complicity. As in the case of the Olympian fraud, the main culprits seem to be individuals and agencies within the power structures on which the Putin regime rests.

A second and related issue concerns the justice and security sectors. These have been largely instrumentalised by the state in its efforts to steal private sector resources and neutralise political criticism. Khodorkovsky was a victim of trumped up legal charges in retaliation for political activities that challenged the tenets of the Putin model of power. There is virtually no effective oversight of the security forces on the part of Russian legislature and civil society actors. The only oversight that does exist is exercised by the security actors in their ongoing efforts to aggrandise their standing at the expense of one another. At best, Putin adjudicates in this process.

The state of the justice and security sectors points to a third issue of crucial importance. Russia’s governance system is nineteenth century. Imagine a Canada or a United States, or a Germany or an India, in which all major decisions about resource distribution are made by the central executive. Russia has 83 lower- level jurisdictions. The latter need to be empowered. This is a risky process as many of them cannot sustain themselves with their present policies. The backdrop to this is the chaotic 1990s when then President Yeltsin invited the regions to take as much power as they could. Negating this process was a central feature of the first Putin Presidency.

Fourth, the economic underpinnings of Putin’s rule seem to be coming apart. The energy sector that has generated so much of Russia’s wealth in recent years is in trouble. Energy prices are on the downside. There has been little investment in old infrastructure, let alone in new energy resources. And new energy capacities outside Russia have emerged with a vengeance. In the wake of these development, Russia’s growth rates have plummeted to around 1.5%. Alexei Kudrin, former Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister, warns that Russia faces economic stagnation over the medium- to long- term. If confirmed, this trend will undermine the relative prosperity that many Russians have enjoyed under Putin and call into question the formula that has been at the core of his regime: I give you improving living conditions, you give me unwavering political obedience.

Finally, Russia faces serious issues along and beyond almost all its borders. First and foremost, there is China. Russia, with 143 million souls runs adjacent to a burgeoning China with roughly ten times as many people. Currently, the two countries appear to see eye to eye on many issues. In particular, they both seek a world in which the US no longer calls the shots. (To tell the truth, it never did, at least not to the degree that the hype about American leadership has tended to hold. And now it is the US President who is leading the downsizing of American leadership, much more effectively that his Russian and Chinese counterparts can do!) There is potential here for broadening security cooperation between Russia and China over the short- and perhaps medium- term.

Over the longer haul, however, the picture is hugely problematical. Russia’s Far East is increasingly dominated by the Chinese. For the time being, this is primarily an economically-driven process. But this can change and more quickly than we think. The relationship can gravitate towards closer cooperation, as suggested above, or it can put the two countries at strategic odds.

How will these processes move forward? My hunch is that Putin for all his authoritarian reflexes has understood that playing the role of a 21st century czar is not the best way forward, certainly not if he wants to win a new term in 2018 with any kind of legitimacy. If this is indeed his intention, the question is whether he can deliver, beholden as he is to an enormous bureaucratic construct, larger than in Soviet times, that favours the status quo.

To return to Khodorkovsky, in his initial statements since his release, he appears to have sworn off any political and economic activity in Russia, at least for the time being. He took the first available opportunity to leave his homeland. This is understandable. His mother is undergoing medical treatment in Germany. His wife and children live in Switzerland. But there is also the pending litigation against him in Russia totaling millions of dollars as well as an oft-rumoured new case that could send him back to prison for several years.

Khodorkovsky has had ten years to think about what he might do if he was ever released, and how he might go about it. He is super-clever, modest and politically astute, as those of you have read the pieces he has managed to get published while in prison will know. That said, and perhaps precisely because of that, I suspect that he will come to be part of the long lineage of political prisoners who, once released, went on to effect fundamental change in their countries.

If I am right on this, Khodorkovsky could become part of a fascinating political ménage à trois. In his recent state of the Union Address, Putin projected the need for civil society actors to play a larger role in governmental decision-making. It remains to be seen whether this is just an extension of his regime’s previous schemes to ensure these organisations are loyal to his power, or part of an effort to widen his political support. That said, building civil society capacity is also the overriding goal that Khodorkovsky articulated for himself in his first press conference as a free man. Former Vice Prime Minister Kudrin has also indicated that he is open to working with Khodorkovsky in this endeavour.

To take a page out of South Africa’s history, these guys, while rivals, need one another, just as did in a very different way the South Africans – De Klerk, Mandela and Slobo -as they sought their different pathways to history. Putin, Khodorkovsky and Kudrin are also very different political actors. They may come to be strategic bedfellows for all that.

Well, I can dream, can’t I?

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