MOSCOW – After Vladimir Putin’s surprise announcement that he would grant a pardon to Mikhail Khodorkovsky after a decade in jail, many were expecting a “Mandela moment” with the ex oil tycoon confidently stepping out of prison into a jubilant crowd.
Russian activists said they were happy that Khodorkovsky, who for many years did not seek a pardon from Putin, is about to be a free man and wondered what he would now do to change Russia.
However, reality brought Khodorkovsky to Germany just over 24 hours later, following a special operation kept in secret from relatives and lawyers and looking more like exile or spy swap harking of the Soviet times.
Stepping off the plane in Berlin airport on Sunday afternoon, he was not greeted by his family or his Russian supporters, but by former German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, whose role in what the Kremlin presented as a “humanitarian” clemency gesture remains unclear.
The only image so far published of Khodorkovsky as a free man showed him shaking hands with Genscher on the blustery tarmac of a Berlin airport.
If, as some of his supporters claim, Khodorkovsky is the Russian equivalent of late South African president and anti-apartheid campaigner Nelson Mandela there was no moment like his 1990 “long walk to freedom” through excited crowds.
Bleary-eyed reporters had arrived to northwestern Karelia region in the grey hours of Sunday morning to stake out the penal colony number seven in Segezha, a town three hours from the nearest airport where the former Yukos owner and Russia’s richest man was serving his sentence.
When the Kremlin announced at midday that the president had signed the decree granting freedom to Russia’s number one prisoner, commentators speculated how long it would take for the paperwork to trickle through the channels.
But just half an hour later, the first reports emerged that Khodorkovsky has already left the colony. Even the prison service conceded something strange had happened.
“Such amnesty decrees are not very typical. Last time such a decree freed a US spy. Usually, everything happens completely differently,” a spokesman at the Karelia prison service told AFP.
Prison officials later said he requested travel documents upon release and was on his way to Germany, where his mother is undergoing medical treatment.
His mother, 79, meanwhile told calling journalists that she is in her home in the Moscow region and has no idea what was happening.
The Russian emergency ministry said it had sent a helicopter to Segezha — but only to airlift a car crash victim, not Khodorkovsky.
Published eight hours after Putin’s decree went into force, the statement by Khodorkovsky provoked more questions than answers.
“I am very much looking forward to the minute when I will be able to embrace my loved ones and personally shake hands with all my friends and associates,” Khodorkovsky’s statement said.
It did not explain the reasons behind his quick dash to Germany, a country with which he has no special connection and where neither his friends or associates can be found.
While Khodorkovsky argued that “the issue of his guilt” was not part of the pardon, the chief of Russia’s oil giant Rosneft, which has acquired most of assets of disassembled Yukos, was already celebrating.
“Thank God Khodorkovsky is out, that he admitted his guilt,” said Igor Sechin, the man whom Khodorkovsky believes to be the main force behind the embezzlement probe that added a new sentence to his existing one for tax evasion in 2010.
“The company is now more protected from legal risks,” he was quoted by Itar Tass as saying.