It's been a very good year for Russia's Vladimir Putin and he is in a gracious mood this holiday season. He has found it in his heart to pardon a number of prominent prisoners.
In a surprise move, the Russian leader says he will soon pardon jailed former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was once one of the world's wealthiest men and crossed Putin publicly.
Putin said he had received a request from Khodorkovsky — in custody for a decade — to pardon him on humanitarian grounds as his mother is ill. It’s an interesting development, especially since Khodorkovsky's representatives say they were unaware of any such request
Khodorkovsky's supporters have long said he is a political prisoner and Khodorkovsky himself has protested his innocence.
Putin's announcement comes a day after Russian lawmakers backed a wide-ranging amnesty for at least 20,000 prisoners. Among them, two members of the punk band ‘Pussy Riot’ still in prison and Greenpeace activists detained for their protest at a Russian oil rig in the Arctic, the so-called Arctic 30.
So, what’s going on? Is Putin simply trying to ease international criticism of Russia's human rights record ahead of February's Winter Olympics in Sochi? Or has Vladimir Vladimirovich been overcome by the Christmas spirit?
He certainly has reason to be cheerful. In neighboring Ukraine, things seem to be going his way. On Tuesday, a Russian economic bailout for Ukraine was announced and Ukraine's association treaty with the European Union continues to be on hold, which, from Putin’s point of view, prevents further westward expansion of the EU — at least for now.
Two days later, his friend in Kiev, President Viktor Yanukovych, told the West to butt out and suggested that Ukraine could adopt parts of Russia's recently-founded Customs Union with other former Soviet republics. The union is part of Putin's vision to recreate a Russian empire.
These moves will not please the demonstrators who have been protesting on Kiev’s Maidan (Independence Square) against Yanukovych’s EU about-face, despite the arctic winter weather. For them, Ukraine seems to be slipping back into a Soviet-type fold, instead of pursuing integration with the West.
However, Yanukovych supporters in eastern Ukraine will be happy about a rapprochement with Moscow. Ukraine’s identity crisis is sure to continue in 2014.
And lest we forget, in the summer Putin celebrated another diplomatic triumph when he managed to prevent American military action in Syria and was able to present himself as a peacemaker on the international stage. And in the fall, he welcomed the famed contractor behind the NSA document leaks, Edward Snowden, positioning himself, ironically, as a defender of free speech.
So, by many accounts, it was quite a good year for Vladimir Putin. Who knows, maybe he's feeling so good he’ll “pardon” the LGBT community next?