Free in Germany, Putin critic Khodorkovsky eyes future
Kremlin critic and Russia's former richest man Mikhail Khodorkovsky prepared Sunday to address his future after being whisked to Germany upon his stunning release following a decade in jail.
The man who had been Russia’s most famous inmate was reunited with his family in Berlin on Saturday after being pardoned a day earlier by President Vladimir Putin in what was widely read as a Kremlin effort to mute criticism of its dismal rights record ahead of the Winter Olympic Games in February.
The former tycoon, who was twice convicted of financial crimes his supporters say was Putin’s revenge for financing the opposition, will address reporters near the symbolic Cold War location of Check Point Charlie, where foreigners used to cross the border between East and Wast Berlin.
Ahead of the 1200 GMT news conference, he is also scheduled to address a smaller group of reporters.
On Saturday, Khodorkovsky, 50, was finally reunited with his parents, who travelled to Berlin from Moscow, and with his eldest son Pavel, who lives in the United States.
During their first meeting with Khodorkovsky as a free man, his 79-year-old ailing mother Marina got out of a chauffeur-driven car, came up to her son and buried her face in his neck as he stroked her back, video footage of the reunion showed.
Then Khodorkovsky embraced his 80-year-old father Boris, and the three began talking, with the elder Khodorkovsky lighting up a cigarette, as friends and supporters looked on.
Khodorkovsky’s extraordinary release was worked out behind the scenes with the German government and came about after negotiations between German former foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher and President Putin.
In his first television interview, Khodorkovsky, his white hair closely cropped, said Putin wanted him to admit guilt, a move he said was unacceptable to him.
Speaking to Dozhd television channel, he said it was Genscher who suggested that he turn to Putin for a pardon on humanitarian grounds, citing his mother’s ill health.
Khodorkovsky added that he realised he would soon be released after he learnt of Putin speaking to reporters on television.
“I immeditely went to collect my papers because the most important thing that I wanted to take with me from the camp were papers,” he said.
‘Return not on the agenda’
The dizzying suddenness of Khodorkovsky’s release led some observers to suggest that he might have been forced into exile.
But Putin’s spokesman dismissed such suggestions.
“He is free to return to Russia. Absolutely,” Dmitry Peskov told AFP on Saturday. He declined to say whether any conditions were attached to his release or whether he would be free to participate in politics.
Germany’s Greens MP Marieluise Beck, who met with Khodorkovsky for more than an hour on Saturday, said that his return to Russia was “not on the agenda” but added that she had no mandate to talk about his plans.
Khodorkovsky, widely seen as Russia’s most famous post-Soviet inmate, was jailed for financial crimes in separate convictions in 2005 and 2010.
He had been due for release in August 2014.
Putin shocked Russia on Thursday by saying that, after a decade behind bars, his fierce opponent had turned to him for a pardon on humanitarian grounds.
Less than 24 hours later, Khodorkovsky was granted the pardon, walked out of prison in a region near the border with Finland and flew to Berlin on a private jet sent by Genscher.
Prison officials said Khodorkovsky had requested to fly to Germany, where his mother, who has cancer, had undergone treatment before.
With Russia and the world eagerly waiting to learn of Khodorkovsky’s plans, a German analyst who helped with his transfer said the former oligarch would likely stay out of politics but could become a high-profile public figure and moral authority.
“He could take upon himself the role of (Alexander) Solzhenitsyn,” Alexander Rahr, who acted as an interpreter for Genscher, told AFP, referring to the former Soviet dissident and Nobel-prize winning author.
Rahr said that Genscher had asked him to support the mediation with the Russian authorities two and a half years ago, adding that he had helped translate letters. Not even his wife knew of the effort, he added.
US Secretary of State John Kerry welcomed the release but urged Moscow to do more to improve the rule of law.
Two jailed members of the Pussy Riot punk band are expected to be freed under an amnesty that comes less than two months before the Olympic Games start in Sochi.
Thirty Greenpeace activists, arrested on hooliganism charges after a protest against Arctic oil drilling, are also expected to escape prosecution.