Photos: Bloomberg, Getty Images; Illustration by Bloomberg View
Photos: Bloomberg, Getty Images; Illustration by Bloomberg View

Granting freedom to a man who was wrongly imprisoned is always progress. But Russian President Vladimir Putin’s statement today that he plans to pardon former oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky merely confirms the arbitrary nature of the Russian justice system.

Khodorkovsky’s release, which will come after he spent a decade behind bars for politically motivated convictions, will depend on the whim of just one man in the Kremlin: Putin. That’s fitting, if depressing, because so did his two court convictions for shady business practices that were common among his peers at the time.

Putin is astute. For a while there, it looked as though he might have spent $48 billion on the Olympics only for it to become a tribune for complaints by a worldwide coalition of human-rights activists and other lobbies. With the games less than two months away, he is now moving to prevent that.

The country’s parliament, a rubber stamp for Putin’s wishes, this week issued an amnesty that will release about 20,000 prisoners. These will include 30 Greenpeace activists and journalists who face trial on charges of hooliganism after they staged a protest against a Russian offshore drilling operation. And last week, Russia’s Supreme Court ordered a review of the prison sentence being served by members of the all-girl punk performance band Pussy Riot, jailed last year for lip-syncing an anti-Putin song in a church.

Human-rights campaigners trying to get commercial sponsors of the Olympic Games to withdraw their support shouldn’t be deterred by Putin’s shows of magnanimity. Prisoners may be allowed to go free, but left behind is a legal system that enables the entrapment of anyone who runs afoul of the authorities, at any time, for any reason.

Putin’s law against gay “propaganda” would be suspect under any system. For Russians it is especially pernicious, as they know that such regulations are vaguely worded precisely so they can be applied at a prosecutor’s whim. In this case, that could mean punishment for an act as simple as holding hands in public.

Khodorkovsky could have faced a fresh batch of charges next year to keep him in jail when his term ends. That’s what happened in 2010. Putin, however, appears to have decided that he no longer needs to be made an example. Greenpeace and Pussy Riot, too, have served their admonitory purposes, and these acts of amnesty only serve to further demonstrate Putin’s power.

Khodorkovsky was once the richest man in Russia, with a fortune worth $15 billion. But he had the temerity to fund opposition political parties, and in 2003 he even harangued Putin on television about corruption among top government officials. Soon afterward, he was on trial. No current Russian oligarch would make the same mistake today.

The former oil magnate is no saint. His fortune was abetted by corruption -- his own and that of former President Boris Yeltsin’s government. Yet these sins were ubiquitous in the Russia of the 1990s and 2000s. Justice was arbitrary, because only Khodorkovsky was chosen.

It is too much to hope that Putin will change what has thus far been a successful strategy, giving him almost unlimited, arbitrary power. Yet he must know that the health of Russian society -- and the growth of the Russian economy -- depends on more than one man. It depends on developing the rule of law.

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