Putin’s amnesty is an opening for the West
January 2nd, 2014
12:11 PM ET

Putin’s amnesty is an opening for the West

By Matthew Rojansky, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Matthew Rojansky is the director of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The views expressed are the writer’s own.

There are plenty of reasons to be cynical about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s motivation in announcing an amnesty last month for more than 20,000 prisoners, including the dissident punk rockers Pussy Riot, detained Greenpeace activists, some leaders of last year’s Bolotnaya Square protests, and most surprisingly, oligarch turned anti-Kremlin icon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who has languished in prison for more than a decade. Putin is following the old Soviet and tsarist tradition of amnesties to mark major anniversaries – in this case the 20th anniversary of Russia’s 1993 constitution – but he is also surely considering the impact on Russia’s image in advance of the February Sochi Olympics.

Russia’s human rights record still falls far short of European and international standards, and it would be naïve to assume that this amnesty represents any kind of transformation in Putin’s thinking about human rights and democracy. Yet at this moment, one vital fact should not be overlooked: real progress has now been made on one of the most persistently contentious items on the Russia-West agenda.

Human rights and political prisoners especially have been an obstacle to pragmatic cooperation on everything from counter-terrorism to trade and investment. The human rights situation was cited among the reasons for the presidents of France and Germany to skip the Sochi games, and was an important backdrop to the Obama administration’s frustration with Russia amid the apparent collapse of the “reset” agenda over the past year. It was also the single biggest justification for passage one year ago of the Magnitsky Act, which imposed financial and travel sanctions on Russian officials accused of abuses.

More from GPS: Sochi key to Putin legacy

Of course human rights is not the only item on the U.S.-Russia agenda, nor is it the only area of conflict with the Kremlin. There are also tensions over Ukraine, Syria and the wider Middle East, Afghanistan, and Central Asia, to name just a few. But each of these urgent challenges is far more likely to be resolved through effective dialogue and engagement between Russia and the West than via confrontation and isolation. Increasingly, the rift over human rights – which some have termed a “values gap” – has stood in the way of such pragmatic dialogue.

For Western rhetoric about the importance of human rights to be taken seriously, it must also acknowledge and reward Russia when positive steps are taken. Otherwise it is seen merely as a fig leaf for antipathy toward Russia's political leaders, or as part of America’s continuing efforts to topple regimes it dislikes around the globe. This view is held not just by Russian political elites but by ordinary people as well.

Offering concrete rewards in exchange for progress on human rights was precisely the sort of conditionality that the European Union has sought to impose on Ukraine's leadership over the imprisonment of Yulia Tymoshenko and other reforms. So far, it has failed to produce the desired outcome in Ukraine. Yet Putin's amnesty is, among other things, an acknowledgment of the rhetorical and political impact of the West’s position, and the weight Putin places on international legitimacy, especially when he and Russia are in the spotlight during the Sochi Olympics.

More from GPS: Why Russia needs the BRICs

Now is therefore a key opportunity to benefit from such conditionality with Russia by recognizing progress on an important precondition for better relations. One way to do this would be by ratcheting back the punitive rolls of the Magnitsky Act, rather than expanding them as some in Congress have recently advocated.

Another would be for top U.S. and European politicians to visit Russia. To be sure, Russia's restrictive NGO and anti-gay laws will continue to provide a justification for Western leaders not to attend Sochi. Moreover, acute disagreement over the Middle East and Russia’s post-Soviet neighborhood will not have faded by February. Yet if last month’s amnesty underscores anything it is that Sochi offers a vital chance to engage on the most sensitive issues and to exert influence.

Like Soviet and tsarist amnesties, this is a limited time opportunity. Western leaders will have the most leverage if the prospect of enhanced international legitimacy through high level visits before, during, and after the Sochi games is clearly back on the table. Now is the time for a strong and decisive new push for engagement with Russia.

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Topics: Human Rights • Russia

soundoff (120 Responses)
  1. Enitan

    You westerners are sick and it's incurable!!! Gay rights!!!!! Watch animal planet even animals know the male and female rule... My problem is not even that your gay it's that you want to impose it on other people by force e.g sanctions

    January 4, 2014 at 3:31 am | Reply
    • Danram

      At least we know the difference between "your" and "you're".


      January 5, 2014 at 11:24 am | Reply
    • tfyrd76

      Away with you, trash.

      January 5, 2014 at 12:31 pm | Reply
    • Bortian

      Guess you haven't had a male dog try to mount your leg before.

      January 5, 2014 at 4:44 pm | Reply
  2. hunucru

    Enitan, is that all you worry about in the huge description of "human rights"?
    What two people do in the privacy of their own lives?
    Open your mind, Oppression in any form forced upon any child,woman or man becomes the oppression of all.
    Try to get your mind around that.

    January 4, 2014 at 4:05 am | Reply
    • joe

      Interesting topic.
      Regarding gays, in Russian tv they show gays artist like Moiseev, Shura and nobody putting them to jail.
      So to say all gays in Russia in jail or beaten not true.
      Regarding human rights.
      2008 Olympic in China and nobody talking about lets boycott Chinese Olympic games, because of human rights, no election at all in China and US and western leaders visited China. One of the reason US corps need China and everybody knows that US government pro-corp government. If Olympic let say in Saudi Arabia US and other western leaders will attend, nobody care gays or human right situation in Saudi Arabia, one of the reason US buys old from Saudi Arabia.

      January 4, 2014 at 7:04 pm | Reply
      • Vlad

        Neither Moiseev nor Shura are openly gay. What matters is that on public they play charades by marrying women and pretending they are straight. At the same time, those who explicitly acknowledge that they are gay are fired from work. This is what the Russian government wants: one can live comfortable as long as you pretend whatever is politically expedient.

        January 5, 2014 at 2:39 am |
  3. Chinese Slave

    Human Rights! Oh, we Chinese youths are waiting for it, liberate us US force!

    January 4, 2014 at 7:50 am | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Since you obviously were not around back in 1937, let me spell it out for you. The J apanese already tried to "liberate" you Chinese people(assuming that you are Chinese) beginning that year and went on for eight more! Did that bring "human rights" to your country? Of course not! Moreover, the politicians in Washington are interested only in gaining control of other countries wherever they can in order to exploit that country's resources, nothing more!

      January 4, 2014 at 2:17 pm | Reply
      • jon t banning

        hey joe, why don't you stay off this blog , you have a lot of opinions on everything , the old saying is opinions are like ASS HOLES everybody has one . LOL

        January 5, 2014 at 11:34 am |
    • globeharmony

      Well, well, Chinese slave, so it is not enough that your western master funding you but also should fight for your war and your hunger for power. Truly delusional.

      January 4, 2014 at 4:05 pm | Reply
  4. Bio

    I am westerner and by all means i am not pro gay. Puting sanctions on russia just for gays is ridiculous. The world dont have to accept you people doing un natural things because it is out of "love".

    January 4, 2014 at 8:32 am | Reply
    • Name*freddie nerk

      The LGBT community want to groom our children. They need new recruits to their perverted ways. Putin is right and most Americans agree with him.

      January 4, 2014 at 9:49 am | Reply
  5. starwatcher622

    He is following the play book written, like his new anti gay laws, by ignorant, self centered power hungry politicians from America owned by the rich and socially ignorant, for political gain. So, we should praise a wolf in sheeps clothing and set America up for what?? What we should do 1st is STOP allowing our politicians and their puppet masters from having so much influence in Russia and elsewhere. Dictating social matters in other countries like the religious right who wrote some of these laws like the anti gay, anti women laws of late we are now seeing. We should be trying to fix such human rights ignorance and violations not help develop more of the same. We, they, have NO business dictating or promoting such social hatred anywhere but especially NOT in Russia. To do so sets the stage for a more rapid decline of society and human rights that is reality all over. What agenda do all these creeps have other that to try and control the dictators like they try to control Americans? To manipulate already power crazed dictators to put on a false show of getting a conscious, or finally recognizing human rights is no reason to reward anyone especially a coward like Putin. They are all bugs to be squashed on the windshield of life without a 2nd thought. We are smarter than to fall for such fakery. At least some of us who see thru the agenda of the GOPs rabid far right so called "christians" are smarter tan to believe the lies they tell. To gin power any way hey can. Hate should never be rewarded especially when people "pretend" they have grown a heart and mind.

    January 4, 2014 at 9:14 am | Reply
  6. chameleojack

    How is an anniversary tradition (pardons complete with *confession* forms) "progress"?

    January 4, 2014 at 10:38 am | Reply
  7. Anna Politkovskaya

    Your article is dillusional at best and demonstrates you are a Putin tool. Journalist like Anna Politkovskaya are murdered and you suggest the West should kiss Putin's ass. You and your twisted article spit on the memory of Anna Politkovskaya and other patriots. But then again, you wouldn't know anything about Anna or what she stood for...

    January 4, 2014 at 10:58 am | Reply
    • joe

      You saw how it happened???

      If are not proof nobody quilty.
      West and US kissing Chineese ass, for example nobody were talking about boycott Chineese Olympic games and talking about free election in China. West and US always are using double standards.

      January 4, 2014 at 7:16 pm | Reply
    • Alex279

      Oh, shut up! Anna Politkovskaya was killed because of her own obscessions and complete neglect to her own safety as well as safety of others. Her murder case has been solved for few years already, abu everybody on the West still repeat the same mantra: "Putin ordered to kill Politkovskaya because she criticized Putin!" At fist, she did not criticise Putin: it is abosolutely impossible to find any material online where she said anything bad about Putin in any way which would make he stand alone out of millions who routiney saying bad words about Putin every evening while watching TV in their kitchens. Secondly, she was invesigating kidnapping and dissappearance of people in Chechnya, stepping on the tail of very bad people, but completely disregarding the fact that after her publications them may actually do something to stop her from doing it again. Basically neglecting common sense and going against it. The material she managed to collect should go not to newspater, but to prosecutors, and be sealed immediately upon receipt because making it public would interfere with the investigation. Yet, she new that she would not be famous if she would not publish it. Now she is famous in her death much more than she could imagine when she was alive.

      January 4, 2014 at 10:59 pm | Reply
      • Anna Politkovskaya

        Your misinformation is vintage FSB. In fact you may be FSB. The notion that prosecutors, judges and courts in Russia are independent, uphold the law and common good and are beyond Putin's edict is lunacy. The only people who believe otherwise are you, Putin, his political associates, the FSB that keeps him in power and perhaps a few other misfits who belong in the Black Dolphin. Her murder was solved? What's most interesting is that you really think the rest of the world will believe this misinformation. As I said, dillusional at best. But thanks for your reply. It only confirms what is wrong with Russia today.

        January 5, 2014 at 6:28 am |
      • Alex279

        "...The notion that prosecutors, judges and courts in Russia are independent, uphold the law and common good and are beyond Putin's edict is lunacy..."– this is exactly what Anna Politkovskaya believed in and what ultimately caused her death - FSB, police, prosecutors, etc.. are all corrupt, so why even to bother to complain to them, or to cooperate with them by any means. Just publish the material in newspaper to expose how lazzy and indifferent they are, and hopefully embarrass the prosecutors.

        Surely, road police routinely takes bribes instead of issuing speeding tickets, and tax police raids businesses extorting bribes, and legal miracles happen from time to time. It is all Putin's fault. Crooks go to prison sometimes - Putin's fault, because they are not crooks, but are fighters with the boody Putin's FSB regime. Crooks do not go to prison - Putin's fault again. Terrorists blow up themselves - FSB fault, and ultimately Putin's fault. Terrorists are ambushed by FSB and killed in shoot out without fair trail - Putin's falut. The human rights of the terrorists are violated by the boody regime - Putin's fault. Terrorists attack a police station or successfully ambushed FSB - Putin's fault. Besides these police/FSB are not professional enought. Putin's fault. This is the kind of paranoia religion practiced by Anna Politkovskaya. What happened to her is called "natural selection". Darwin's fault.

        P.S.: FSB of Dagestan killed about 180 terrorists (or suspected terrorists) in shoot outs with them during 2012. Lost 58 of their own. Hardly a job where one can benefit from corruption.

        January 5, 2014 at 2:07 pm |
  8. Rob S

    I agree with Anna P. This article is clearly delusional. We're expected to buy this publicity stunt hook line and sinker. Did Putin resurrect Magnitsky too? Because last time we checked, Magnitsky (and Anna Politkovskaya), were dead, and that's kinda final. Why the hell would we "rachet back" the Magnitsky Law now – he's still dead. The much better plan would be to see if the Russian government can take the pressure of protesters DURING the Sochi Olympics – and if the government restrains itself and fosters freedom of speech and protest during that time and keeps that leaf turned over for the future THEN they can be rewarded. You know, of course, this will not happen – the government will brutally oppress protesters and will not let them near Sochi. So, why would we let a temporary publicity stunt, one that we all know (even this author knows) was implemented only because of the Sochi games, to determine our permanent foreign policy?

    January 4, 2014 at 12:34 pm | Reply
  9. Socrates


    January 4, 2014 at 1:08 pm | Reply
  10. kyzaadrao

    Sounds like a great reason to keep the Olympics about unity in sports and to leave the rest of the baggage out of it.

    January 4, 2014 at 1:12 pm | Reply
  11. Ted

    If you look at the Russian history, from the times of Ivan the Terrible till now, it has been one one up-and-down ride: dictator-instability-dictator-...Putin will preside over "strong" Russia while the world is still hooked on oil for another 30 years and he will be enshrined in Kremlin. Then, as the world goes solar and hydrogen, the Russian economy will tank, Ukraine and others will bail the "union", and the Russian elite will be stealing what they can as they did in the 1990's. Then the new dictator will arise to hold the angry masses together, and he will make Putin look like a liberal. Son enjoy it while it lasts.

    January 4, 2014 at 2:01 pm | Reply
  12. Syd Chaden

    Putin provides arms and nuclear plants and technology to Iran. He provides arms to Syria. He vetoes UN actions against terrorism and terrorist countries. But, he let one guy go. And so, diplomats see that as an opportunity for more of their famous meetings, which have produced such wondrous results. Like Iran's continued development of its nuclear weapons, Syria's continued slaughter of its people, and Egypt's military agreements with Russia. The thought that Obama could successfully achieve something beneficial by talking to Putin is laughable. The safest thing that the US can do is for Obama to remain uninformed about everything, so that he can't be blamed if things go wrong.

    January 4, 2014 at 2:13 pm | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Like I said before, Sid, Vladimir Putin is not perfect but he's still a great improvement over his predecessor Boris Yeltsin who never had the guts to stand up the the West, but instead crawled to it for foreign handouts after he ruined Russia's economy with his gross mismanagement! Moreover, if Obama did attack Syria last summer as he planned to do, Yeltsin would have sat up and got drunk in the Kremlin without saying inasmuch as a word!

      January 4, 2014 at 3:07 pm | Reply
      • Patrick

        Beautifully said, Joseph. Thanks a million!

        January 4, 2014 at 5:08 pm |
  13. glenn

    I think he's jealous of Obama had a Nobel prize as he want one as true seeker not fake Obama did to world after got it.

    January 4, 2014 at 3:23 pm | Reply
    • Patrick

      Sorry glenn, I can't understand your comment above. The truth here is is that it's Vladimir Putin who truly deserves the Nobel Peace Prize, not that obscene butcher Obama! After all, what war did Obama seek to prevent? On the other hand, he continues to have people slaughtered day after day with those godless drones and Apache helicopters of ours! It makes one wonder if whoever is giving out this prize is being paid off.

      January 4, 2014 at 5:06 pm | Reply
  14. R white

    The bigger opportunity here is to join forces with Putin against the terrorists. "The enemy of my enemy is my friend". Send troops to help him fight the terrorists. Making Russia an ally would be a bigger star on Obama's legacy than the lopsided Obamacare.

    January 4, 2014 at 7:14 pm | Reply
  15. joe

    Interesting topic.
    Regarding gays, in Russian tv they show gays artist like Moiseev, Shura and nobody putting them to jail.
    So to say all gays in Russia in jail or beaten not true.
    Regarding human rights.
    2008 Olympic in China and nobody talking about lets boycott Chinese Olympic games, because of human rights, no election at all in China and US and western leaders visited China. One of the reason US corps need China and everybody knows that US government pro-corp government. If Olympic let say in Saudi Arabia US and other western leaders will attend, nobody care gays or human right situation in Saudi Arabia, one of the reason US buys oil from Saudi Arabia.

    January 4, 2014 at 7:30 pm | Reply
  16. CharlieSeattle

    Amnesty last month for 20,000 prisoners is just lipstick on a pig. It will not help Putin's image except in an lunatic asylum.

    January 4, 2014 at 7:44 pm | Reply
  17. Danro

    This article is terrible. Putti is no more open to the west then he ever was. Articles like this only show how the west, ( US and Europe) and Russia are talking past each other and not at each other. We are talking about democracy, human rights, development and meanwhile Russia is trying to rebuild itself from its many self inflicted wounds from the past by showing its ability to defy the west.
    If Mr. Matthew Rojansky or Fareed reading this, what is needed is not a reset button or demonization of Putin but engagement with the Russia people themselves. Simply attacking Putin won't make him go away but will make him stronger. I have yet to read an article that does an in depth research on Modern Russia.
    I believe that Russians like any other people simply want a stable country. After so many years of turbulence I believe Russians back Putin because that is what is what he is promising them. Russia can exist and can be a better place without Putin, that is the message we should be saying.

    January 4, 2014 at 8:11 pm | Reply
  18. Victor

    Funny, posted a comment and it's not there.

    January 4, 2014 at 10:49 pm | Reply
  19. Victor

    OK. Try it again. First piece of news is that there are gay clubs in Russia. And if somebody is interested they can visit them.
    Folks there don't like this but it's not an issue. In Soviet times gay caught doing it would wind up in a labor camp for 2 years.
    Now, as long as there is no public display gay and lesbians can freely do it.

    January 4, 2014 at 10:56 pm | Reply
  20. Victor

    When in Russia I saw demonstrators carrying huge portrait of Putin with a painted condom around his neck. Nobody, was arrested for this. During, Soviet times these people would disappear for a very long time.

    January 4, 2014 at 11:00 pm | Reply
  21. Victor

    I understand some people here intensely disliking Putin because you want people to be free. However, Russians openly criticize him and nobody gets in jail unless you're violent it's all good.
    For those who want to understand why Russia is constantly criticized for human rights violations and not so much China or Saudis please read a book by Kissinger 'Diplomacy'. It's all geopolitics.

    January 4, 2014 at 11:12 pm | Reply
  22. John

    Iron Curtain closes after Soji final ceremonies..

    January 5, 2014 at 10:03 am | Reply
    • Victor

      The curtain was sold 20 years ago. So, don't worry.

      January 5, 2014 at 2:28 pm | Reply
  23. tom

    A leopard doesn't change it's spots and Comrade Putin will continue his repression on the people of Russia...this is purely a show for the upcoming Olympics...quite transparent actually. He's a scary man who won't be happy until there's another Cold War or Russia is once again a totalitarian country.

    January 5, 2014 at 12:32 pm | Reply
  24. desertvoice

    I also think that the article is not well thought through. Syria is undergoing horrible suffering because of Vladimir Putin's refusal to allow UN help to flow in! Until Putin reconsiders the damage he is doing to Syria's women and children, for his own prurient political ambitions and interests, I think that any "reward"for him would be premature!

    January 5, 2014 at 2:59 pm | Reply
  25. Danlien

    I want to go to Sochi! I'm from Salt Lake City and I still remember the 2002 games vividly. Olympic festivities are SO MUCH FUN! I wonder if Sochi will have a "Budweiser World Party"? In Salt Lake (of all places), they cordoned off an entire block for a keggar with about 20,000 people in it (if not more). All of downtown was turned into one huge bar. If they could do that in UTAH, imagine what they're going to do in Russia, a drinker's paradise!

    January 5, 2014 at 3:59 pm | Reply
    • sadhumanbehavior

      God himself will not help you, when "black widows" come to celebrate their misery at your beer party in Sochi............ human body parts scattered all over the place........ not so much fun anymore huh??????

      January 5, 2014 at 5:13 pm | Reply
  26. lela

    Aaaahh, he is one of the few "classical" leaders that still exist. Makes you feel all warm and cuddly inside, doesn't it? Hahahahahaha.

    Seriously, I like following the steps of such dictators. We can all learn from the "bad" ones.

    January 5, 2014 at 7:36 pm | Reply
  27. josh

    The father of peace

    January 5, 2014 at 9:13 pm | Reply
  28. nathan

    Russias human rights abuses? Are you serious? What about the wedding convoy that a US drone struck in pakistan? or the labor camps in north korea. or the illegal israeli occupation of the west bank. or sharia law in saudi arabia. or protest crackdowns in authoritarian nations. are these not human rights abuses or do they only matter when its an anti-west nation? This world sickens me anymore, every government in this world is a hypocrite, no exceptions. its all about the money anymore, who cares if a few hundred thousand people die along the way. absolutely ridiculous.

    January 6, 2014 at 5:11 am | Reply
    • Patrick

      Well put, nathan. How true that rings!

      January 6, 2014 at 6:39 am | Reply
  29. haha678

    Yeah well if Tanya harding is a famous sports player in treatment then Kerrigan looks like a sociopath out to hurt mrs. Harding because why would hoardings bodyguard have to protect harding from Kerrigan killing her???? Someone was were facsimlative!!! At least come on!!!
    And I know it!!

    January 7, 2014 at 2:30 am | Reply
  30. haha678

    It's because they want to think America is not facsilative!!!

    January 7, 2014 at 2:33 am | Reply
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