MOSCOW — In a surprise decision, President Vladimir Putin announced Thursday that jailed former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky will be pardoned, a move that will see his top foe and Russia’s onetime richest man freed after more than a decade in prison.
The development, along with an amnesty for two jailed members of the Pussy Riot punk band and the 30-member crew of a Greenpeace protest ship, appeared aimed at easing international criticism of Russia’s human rights record ahead of February’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, Putin’s pet project.
Putin waited until just after his tightly choreographed annual news conference to make the announcement, dropping the biggest news of the day after journalists had already peppered him with questions in a four-hour marathon.
Putin said the 50-year-old Khodorkovsky, who was set to be released next August, had submitted an appeal for pardon, something he had refused to do before.
“He has spent more than 10 years behind bars. It’s a tough punishment,” Putin said. “He’s citing humanitarian aspects — his mother is ill. A decree to pardon him will be signed shortly.”
The head of the Kremlin’s United Russia faction said he expects Khodorkovsky to celebrate the New Year at home with his family.
Khodorkovsky’s son, Pavel, tweeted: “Very happy news. Waiting to speak with my father to learn more.”
Putin’s announcement “came as a big surprise for me, totally out of the blue,” Khodorkovsky’s mother, Maria, told RT television.
“We are old people, and we are waiting, hoping to live to the moment when we can embrace him,” his father, Boris, said in remarks posted on the Slon.ru online newspaper.
Analysts viewed the decision as a clever step ahead of the Sochi Olympics.
“At first blush, the pardon for Khodorkovsky appears to be a rather canny move that will throw Putin’s critics off-balance in the run-up to Sochi, while sending a clear message of self-confidence to his domestic political opponents,” Andrew Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said in a written commentary.
In October 2003, masked commandos stormed into Khodorkovsky’s jet on the tarmac of a Siberian airport and arrested him at gunpoint. He was found guilty of tax evasion in 2005 and convicted of embezzlement in a second case in 2010.
Critics have dismissed the charges against Khodorkovsky as a Kremlin vendetta for challenging Putin’s power. During Putin’s first term as president, the oil tycoon angered the Kremlin by funding opposition parties and also was believed to harbor personal political ambitions.
His actions defied an unwritten pact between Putin and a narrow circle of billionaire tycoons, dubbed “oligarchs,” under which the government refrained from reviewing privatization deals that made them enormously rich in the years after the Soviet collapse on condition that they didn’t meddle in politics.
Putin didn’t say a word Thursday about the fate of Khodorkovsky’s business partner, Platon Lebedev, who was convicted and sentenced in the same trials. Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he hadn’t asked for a pardon.
During the news conference, Putin was asked if Khodorkovsky could face yet another criminal case that would keep him behind bars longer. He gave a vague answer, saying he doesn’t see grounds for that, but prosecutors must investigate alleged offenses.
Gleb Pavlovsky, a former political consultant for the Kremlin, said on Ekho Moskvy radio that Khodorkovsky might have submitted his pardon request after being threatened with yet another trial.
At the time of his arrest, Khodorkovsky was estimated to have a fortune of around $15 billion but it’s not clear what is left. Khodorkovsky’s oil company, Yukos, was once Russia’s largest but it was dismantled after his arrest, its most lucrative assets ending up in the hands of the state-owned company Rosneft.
Russia’s deputy minister of economic development, Andrei Klepach, voiced hope that Khodorkovsky’s release would help improve Russia’s image among investors.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier voiced hope for Khodorkovsky’s quick release.
“The pardoning of Mikhail Khodorkovsky is a good decision,” he said in a statement.
At his news conference, Putin also confirmed that an amnesty approved Wednesday by the Kremlin-controlled parliament will apply to the two members of Pussy Riot still in jail and to the Greenpeace crew facing hooliganism charges for their protest at a Russian oil rig in the Arctic.
Putin still stood by his strong criticism of Pussy Riot’s irreverent 2010 protest at Moscow’s main cathedral, describing it as a publicity stunt that “crossed all barriers.”
He also alleged that the Greenpeace activists, who spent two months in jail after their Arctic protest before being granted bail, were trying to hurt Russia’s economic interests.
Despite strains in Russia-U.S. ties, the Russian president offered support to President Barack Obama, saying that surveillance by the U.S. National Security Agency is necessary to fight terrorism. The U.S. government should “limit the appetite” of the agency, however, with a clear set of ground rules, he said.
Putin, a 16-year KGB veteran and the former chief of Russia’s main espionage agency, said while the NSA program “isn’t a cause for joy, it’s not a cause for sorrow either” because it’s necessary to monitor large numbers of people to expose terrorist contacts.
Asked about former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, whom Russia has granted asylum, Putin insisted that Moscow isn’t controlling him and hasn’t tried to learn his secrets.
He argued that any revelations published by Snowden must have come from materials he provided to journalists before landing in Russia. He reaffirmed that Moscow made providing refuge to Snowden conditional on halting what Putin called his anti-American activities.
Putin said he hasn’t met with Snowden and insisted that Russian security agencies haven’t worked with him or questioned him about NSA activities against Russia.
Putin’s annual news conference is seen by the Kremlin as a key way to burnish Putin’s father-of-the nation image.
Journalists waved handwritten posters with names of their cities to attract Putin’s eye. One succeeded by holding up a Yeti doll in a T-shirt with the name of her region, while another invited Putin to attend a party at her newspaper.