Last week was a good week for some political prisoners in Russia: Mikhail Kodhorkovsky and Pussy Rioters Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina are free. It was a terrible week for Russian democracy, a proof that prison terms are handed out and cancelled not as a result of fair and open trials, as a result of the ruling by independent courts, but as a decision by its president, who rules as he feels fit. The timing of the amnesty smacks of old school: a major international event coming up [the Sochi Olympics], open the jails, suggest that there is humanism, disarm critics. Just like during Soviet times, before major talks. But have no doubt, Putin's message is that its all happening because "I took the decision", because " I want it to happen", and I could decide otherwise as I please.
Putin seemingly feels invulnerable. He did pull off some big stunts this year : Snowden (not his natural ally), Syria (by default). He is for sure proud of how he used the liberal New York Times to chastise the West. He looks down on Western leaders as weaklings. Mr.Putin mistakenly thinks that a temporary lack of strong leadership in the West is a sign of decline. He has no idea about the resilience of our societies, that our weak moment will pass, like the flu. He sells anti-western sentiments in Russia and the world, not admitting to himself that this rhetoric is way past its "sell by date", and like relabeled, but bad perishable food perhaps quells hunger, but soon causes severe stomach ache. He surely knows, (it used to be his job to figure it out) that the west is no military threat to Russia. Of course he also knows, that the real threat to his everlasting position as president are the decaying economy, the spread of values of democracy and freedom, transparency and the rule of law, the apparent suffocating of creativity, freedom of speech and organization.
Some in the West are impressed. They shouldn't be. Mr.Putin's "self confidence" is covering up his insecurities, his full understanding that the almost 15 years in power has been largely wasted for Russia's modernization, and he rightly fears that he might never be able to make up for lost time. He chose to build his own power, instead of building a strong and healthy society. Unfortunately there are plenty of prime ministers and president's in Central and Eastern Europe who see Putin as an attractive role model (while they hate him at the same time) and fashion their own style of ruling on the example of the Russian president. They too are disconnected from reality and will run their countries to ruin.
The truth and details of Mikhail Kodhorkovsky's release will once emerge from secrecy. While we must applaud his release, it is just too suspect for it to be a credible statement of honesty and change. Kodhorkovsky should have been let out of prison, unconditionally, a long time ago. Or perhaps even better: he should not have been imprisoned in the first place. One must be seriously impressed by the statement by Alyokhina, who said in an interview after her relase: " ...I don't think the [Putin's] amnesty is a humanitarian act, I think it is a PR stunt. If I had a choice to refuse [the amnesty] I would..."
There is reason to believe that the anti LGBT laws recently passed by Russia is the real face of the system and have clearly let the genie out of the bottle. The temporary suspension of their enforcement only means that they will be back with a vengeance once the Olympics is over. The West should not look aside, it must continue to watch and must be consequent. The Magnitsky law, most unfortunately "suspended" by the US government, for reasons that needs an explanation beyond the arguments of pragmatism, should be extended to perpetrators of crimes against LGBT people.
Authoritarian rulers in search of role models diligently study the history of dictators of the past. Vladimir Putin too probably did that and fashions himself to these past "strong" figures. Like them he is certainly unaware of his own faults and mistakes. Perhaps he has not read the last chapters of the history books. Without exception authoritarian rulers and dictators ended in tragedy, bloodshed or exile. And as it happens, they also left their country in a terrible shape, at times fully destroyed and its people impoverished.
Putin should make a u turn in the dead end street Russia is moving in. He might think to be moving fast, but at the end of the road, it is still a dead end. He can turn Russia around, he can turn the country in the direction of economic growth and democracy if he wanted to. He has the powers. I wonder if he also has the wisdom and statesmanship?