With Amnesty Russia Polishes Its Image Before Winter Olympics
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Russia appears to be polishing up its image as it prepares to host the Winter Olympics in February. This morning two jailed members of the protest band Pussy Riot were freed. This was part of a widespread amnesty for thousands of prisoners. Over the weekend, the country's most famous prisoner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, arrived in Germany and started speaking to the press after his release from prison.
We have two correspondents covering this story - NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Berlin and NPR's Corey Flintoff in Moscow. Good morning to you both.
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Good morning.
COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Good morning, David.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Soraya, let's start with you. Mikhail Khodorkovsky spoke to the press in Berlin. A lot of people in Russia and elsewhere were watching to see what his plans might be. What did he have to say?
NELSON: Well, there was a lot of anticipation about this press conference and I think a lot of people here, at least in Germany, felt let down. He says he's not going to be involved in a power struggle and he really wants to focus on releasing more Russian political prisoners, as he describes them. And also that he wants to spend time with his family.
So he says that, you know, people have to forgive him. They have to give him time to adjust to freedom.
GREENE: Let down, you know, because a lot of people in the opposition in Russia were hoping that he would rise up again and become perhaps a political opponent of President Vladimir Putin. And Corey, let me ask you, how is his release playing among Russians?
FLINTOFF: Well, it depends on the Russians and it depends on the media that they listen to. Government-controlled media are stressing Khodorkofsky not being a political prisoner. A lot of their coverage has to do with his arrest. They say that he was a criminal, he was convicted on fraud and tax evasion and things like that.
And they also say that Khodorkovsky didn't get to be Russia's richest man without committing crimes on a massive scale. Liberal media, on the other hand, are pretty obsessed, actually, with the deal he must have made to get his freedom. They point to this report that Kremlin representatives visited Khodorkovsky in a prison back in November and told him he could have a pardon if he asked for it.
And the question then is whether he agreed to leave the country or stay out of politics in exchange for his freedom.
GREENE: Well, Corey, a lot of the critics of Putin suggest that these members of the band Pussy Riot never should've been in prison. They suggest that Khodorkovsky was put in prison for political reasons and not because he actually committed major crimes. I mean do Russians think this is some sort of ploy by Putin to improve the country's image? Or what do they think is going on?
FLINTOFF: Well, basically, you know, I think they do agree to some extent that this is an effort to clean up the human rights record before the Winter Olympics in Sochi in February. But on the other hand, people do listen to their government-controlled media so they do tend to see the Pussy Riot case as being a case of offending religious believers.
They tend to see Khodorkovsky as being a crook. So they think that this is - on Putin's part it's really evidence that he doesn't see them as a serious challenge to his power anymore.
GREENE: And it's pretty amazing, the fact that Putin could decide to pardon him and he's immediately within hours told in his jail cell that he's being removed. I mean it just shows the power that that president has.
FLINTOFF: Absolutely. You know, the decree comes out and the deed is done.
GREENE: Soraya, let me just turn to you. I mean, if Putin is indeed hoping to polish up his image and kind of calm down some of his critics ahead of the Olympics, does it appear to be working in countries like Germany and the West?
NELSON: Well, it doesn't appear to be. Chancellor Angela Merkel did call it a good message that he pardoned Khodorkovsky, but on the other hand, there are cool relations right now between Russia and the West. For example, people are not very happy with how - what they perceive as him standing in the way of Ukraine becoming closer with the EU.
And there are these laws in Russia that the West views as anti-gay that they're not too happy with Putin about either. And so in Germany, for example, only the interior minister will be attending the Winter Olympic Games. At this point both the president and Chancellor Merkel have said they're not going.
GREENE: And of course, as we know, President Obama does not plan to attend the Olympics in Russia either. NPR's Saraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Berlin and Corey Flintoff in Moscow, thank you both.
FLINTOFF: Our pleasure, David.
NELSON: You're welcome.
GREENE: This is NPR News.