MOSCOW, Russia — It began and ended like any of Vladimir Putin’s beloved televised news conferences, devoted to showing off the ex-KGB spy’s characteristic poise under pressure.
One by one, the Russian president fielded questions from reporters from across Russia during four and a half hours— on Pussy Riot, the political crisis in Ukraine, even this year’s harvest — with his trademark air of omniscience.
He sat relaxed, chuckled confidently and, when appropriate, sternly denounced this or that on cue. And because it’s Russia, where Putin is by far the most visible public figure, his statements made headline news — even when they weren’t.
Which is why it was perhaps fitting that the real news came only after it was all over.
Almost as an afterthought, he told reporters that he had received a request for pardon from the jailed former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky — who has spent more than a decade in far-flung Russian prisons on charges of fraud, embezzlement and tax evasion — and that he would soon approve the request.
The quiet announcement about the country’s most famous political prisoner stunned observers.
Putin said Khodorkovsky requested clemency on “humanitarian” grounds because his mother is ill, adding that the ex-billionaire’s time already served was “serious punishment.”
“I believe that by keeping these circumstances in mind, a corresponding decision can be made, and a decree pardoning him will be signed in the near future,” he said.
Putin’s announcement — perhaps the most important news of the season — sent journalists into a frenzy. Twitter exploded with activity. Even Khodorkovsky’s lawyer was caught by surprise.
He told the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti that he knew nothing about his client’s plea for clemency, while Khodorkovsky's press service later issued a cautious statement.
“Until his legal team can meet with Mikhail Khodorkovsky, it cannot be commented on whether a request on a pardon was made, by whom and for what reasons,” it read.
The news prompted suspicion because Khodorkovsky, 50, has repeatedly insisted he would not request a pardon because it would require him to admit guilt of committing charges he’s denied.
Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov seemed to confirm as much on Thursday to the Interfax news agency: “If he’s asking for clemency, it means he admits his guilt.”
Either way, the development came as a major shock to Russia-watchers.
Observers say the tycoon’s arrest more than decade ago was a watershed moment in Putin-era Russia that marked the beginning of a crackdown on political freedom and the renationalization of the country’s prized natural resources.
Before his arrest at gunpoint from his plane on a Siberian tarmac in late 2003, Khodorkovsky became Russia’s richest man while building his oil company, Yukos, into what promised to rival Western oil majors. He also funded various social and political opposition groups.
Critics railed against what they said were deeply flawed judicial procedures during which the former oil executive was convicted in two separate trials of tax evasion and stealing massive amounts of oil. Yukos was later dismantled and sold to a state company in a controversial closed auction.
To many, the case represents the worst of what post-Soviet Russia had become.
Putin has consistently shrugged off suggestions that Khodorkovsky is innocent, once even famously remarking that “a thief should sit in jail.”
However, Thursday’s surprise announcement seems to suggest the Kremlin no longer perceives Khodorkovsky, who says he has no plans for a future in politics, as a threat.
It also showed Putin in perhaps his most skillful display yet of keeping his critics on edge at all times through his traditional mix of down-home wisdom, salty language and flat-out surprise.
During the news conference, one journalist asked about widespread expectations for a third case against Yukos executives aimed at keeping Khodorkovsky behind bars longer than his scheduled release in August.
Putin expressed doubt, saying he saw “no particular prospects” for a third trial, but made no mention of tycoon’s fate.
Then, on the way out, when a reporter finally asked about Khodorkovsky directly, Putin responded directly. It was no big deal, he seemed to suggest, that his sworn enemy would soon walk free.
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That apparent spirit of generosity appears to be blooming.
Just yesterday, the parliament passed a sweeping amnesty bill that paves the way for the release of two jailed members of the punk group Pussy Riot, as well as several activists charged for their alleged roles in a violent protest in May 2012.
Earlier on Thursday, four defendants in that high-profile case — dubbed the “Bolotnoye affair,” named after the square where the protest took place — were set to walk free from prison or house arrest, according to local news reports.
The amnesty is also expected to exonerate more than two dozen Greenpeace activists charged with hooliganism over their high-profile protest against Arctic oil drilling in September.
It was not expected to cover Khodorkovsky, however.
Some observers have suggested the amnesty is aimed at polishing Russia’s international image, which has been badly tainted by accusations of human rights abuse and crooked courts, ahead of February’s 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
In the past week, several leading Western officials, including U.S. President Barack Obama, announced they would not attend the games.