Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Putin's ploy shows Russia has way to go

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Russian President Vladimir Putin is slowly releasing thousands of political prisoners to improve the country's image in advance of the Sochi Olympics, but all he has succeeded in doing was reminding the world Russia is still a one-party state.

Russia's parliament passed a series of decrees this year offering amnesty to businessmen who were jailed under Mr. Putin for so-called economic crimes, even though many of their alleged offences were committed in the 1990s, when the rules of business and trade were in their infancy following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, for example, was jailed in 2003 for tax evasion, but most observers believe he was locked up because he criticized Mr. Putin.

Mr. Khodorkovsky did not qualify for freedom under the amnesty for economic crimes, but Mr. Putin pardoned him anyway. He claimed it was for humanitarian reasons, but the real motive was to please Germany, which had been quietly calling for his release for years.

The release of Greenpeace protesters and two members of the Russian rock band Pussy Riot, who were sentenced to two years in a Siberian labour colony year for hooliganism, was part of a separate amnesty for less serious crimes.

A member of Pussy Riot correctly called the amnesties "a hoax and PR," but Mr. Putin has good reasons beyond the Olympics for wanting to change the country's image.

His crackdown on opponents, including many businessmen over the years, has made investors nervous and upset relations with important trading nations, particularly Germany and the United States.

Foreign banks have also been reluctant to compete in Russia, where the playing field has been arbitrarily tilted in favour of Russian firms. The Russian leader has simply failed to establish the ground rules that are necessary to encourage investment, namely a commitment to and respect for the rule of law.

As a result, capital has been fleeing, while Russian stocks are falling. The country is resource-rich, but Mr. Putin realizes he must diversify the economy.

The Olympics are undoubtedly a factor in Mr. Putin's timing, but the amnesties are clearly related to a broader strategy to ease investor concerns. The best business strategy would be for the Russian leader to resign and for parliament to update its constitution to prevent another strongman from taking over.

Since that's unlikely to happen any time soon, Mr. Putin can at least empty the gulags and tolerate more dissent. It just might be good for business.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 26, 2013 A12

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