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Khodorkovsky walks free

Vladimir Putin stunned the world today by freeing Russia’s most famous political prisoner, and onetime richest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Vladimir Putin stunned the world today by freeing Russia's most famous political prisoner, and onetime richest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

After his sudden and unexpected release from a prison colony in his country's frigid north.  Khodorkovsky went first to Berlin, where he  granted his first interview to the crusading Russian journalist Evgenia Albats. He will be reunited with his wife and family – and with his ailing mother, who will fly to him from Moscow.

The move by Putin confirms his tsar-like status in Russia.  In his annual press conference at year's end, he never mentioned his plan to grant Khodorkovsky a pardon, dropping this news bombshell to reporters after the presser was over.  Khodorkovsky's lawyers and his family had no idea this was coming.  But a snap of Putin's fingers, and suddenly he is a free man. This, in addition to an amnesty that Putin's pliant duma passed that will free other high profile prisoners, like two women from the punk protest group Pussy Riot.

No doubt the Russian leader had in mind the Sochi Winter Olympics coming up in February, where, besides pressing him on Russia's anti-gay legislation, the world's press was likely to hound him on human rights, on Khodorkovsky and on the Pussy Riot women.

I met the onetime billionaire at the Davos World Economic Forum in his heyday in the late 1990s, when as owner of one of Russia's largest oil companies he was trying to build it into the modern equivalent of any of the international oil majors.  One of the biggest Russian oligarchs, he had made his fortune after the break-up of the Soviet Union when smart and well-connected individuals could grab shares of Russian natural resources for relative peanuts by questionable means.

Sitting in a Davos hotel, he was handsome, brusque, and dressed all in fashionable black. He talked the language of international business, not the arcane lingo of leftover Russian socialist economics. He wanted to build a rational and transparent company along the lines of global multinationals, not in the opaque fashion of natural resource companies controlled directly or indirectly by the Kremlin.

Khodorkovsky was different from other oligarchs in other critical ways.  Once he acquired his wealth, he started a charitable foundation and began funding groups in political opposition to Putin.  This crossed a Putin red line; ten years ago the oligarch was sent to Siberia on tax evasion and corruption charges that neutral Russia observers almost universally regarded as trumped up.  (The obvious proof is the fact that other oligarchs, who acquired their wealth in the same way, but kept their heads down and avoided politics, were left untouched or even welcomed into the Kremlin circle).

A second trial stretched Khodorkovsky's sentence to over a decade. His private oil company Yukos, was essentially seized and put back under state control.  He had been told that a third trial would be upcoming. Most observers believed the former billionaire would never be released so long as Putin sat in the Kremlin.

Now Khodorkovsky is free, and still in possession of substantial wealth that had been moved abroad. Questions about his future are being hotly debated over Russian airwaves.  Will he be able to return to Russia?  Will he try to form, or fund, an opposition political party or has Putin made it clear that this would guarantee a return trip to Siberia?  Will he become an international figure who lobbies for Russian human rights from abroad? Or has his ordeal, which kept him from seeing his children grow up, soured him on politics forever?

"We don't know under what circumstances he has left, or whether he can return back to Russia, or whether he still has a Russian passport, so it's hard to say what he will do in the future," says Russian journalist Natalia Gevorkyan, the author of Prisoner of Putin, a book about Khodorkovsky's travails, as well as a biography of Putin.

Glowing from his triumphs over the West on Syria and Ukraine, Putin clearly thinks Khodorkovsky is no danger.  Whether or not Russia's tsar is correct in his Khodorkovsky gamble provides the most interesting political speculation in Russia for the past decade.