In recent days, the international media widely reported the story of the former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s release. The events unfolded in the spirit of Soviet time and the German secret diplomacy, despite it being well into the 21st century. It took literally a few hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s December 20 decree pardoning the most famous prisoner in the world for Khodorkovsky to be brought to Berlin and issued a passport with a one-year visa even as his plane was in flight.
Political scientist Alexander Rahr gave an interview revealing the role of German diplomacy in the Russian prisoner’s release. “His release in its entirety, this whole story, the Khodorkovsky case, it all is the work of the German secret diplomacy and, thank God, Germany still has these clandestine or semi-clandestine channels of communication, which other European countries and America have probably lost for good, and it is such channels that can work in these situations,” Rahr said. According to him, German politician Hans-Dietrich Genscher was the driving force of the operation to release Khodorkovsky. His long negotiations with Putin ensured Khodorkovsky’s move to Germany.
Head of the European security department at the Institute of Europe Dmitry Danilov disagreed with Rahr, stating in an interview with Pravda.Ru that “the role of secret diplomacy has been exaggerated.” In the Russian expert’s opinion, the president’s decision was influenced by many factors, including image and political ones, but it is hard to tell what exactly played a decisive role. German press writes that Genscher’s special role was to convince Putin not to require Khodorkovsky’s admission of guilt to be included in his pardon petition.
The Day turned to Die Welt’s reporter Gerhard GNAUCK for comment on the events surrounding the release of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Russian prisoner No. 1, as well as advantages that Germany sought by its engagement and chances that the German government will insist on the release of remaining political prisoners in Russia.
“I have been asking this question myself. Maybe there is some double meaning in it. Firstly, the German government shows German public that it is to some extent reviving the tradition of struggle for human rights and shows that it does care about human rights and democracy in its so-called strategic partners. It also shows the German public that they do not share the current Russian government’s approach to human rights and democracy. And secondly, the government shows to the current Russian government its concern and disagreements on these abovementioned points. It looks like the German government is getting its foot in the door of prison. It is, by the way, a bit like the case of Yulia Tymoshenko.”
Can we expect that the German government will continue to insist on the respect for human rights in Russia and to exert pressure on the Kremlin or Khodorkovsky was the end of it all?
“We are speaking mere hours after the release of Khodorkovsky. Therefore it is difficult to say what will happen next. Perhaps the German government felt comfortable engaging in such a publicized case, helping a well known figure. What will become of lesser-known prisoners? Their release would require even harder work. But Khodorkovsky said at a press conference in Berlin that he would like to be seen not as the last political prisoner in Russia, but as a good example of civil society’s remaining ability to change something in the world through its pressure. He himself wants to participate in it in the future. Therefore it will be interesting to see whether the German government will continue this line, even when there is no such limelight and such a big stage as we saw in the Khodorkovsky case.”
What do Germans think about Putin’s motives in pardoning his principal adversary?
“I do not know what the German government thinks about it. As for the German public and the press, their primary explanation is the Olympic Games in Sochi. This is the main reason in their view. They also strongly emphasize that this pardon changes neither the Russian law nor the country’s political course. So expectations in Germany about some deeper changes in Russia are very modest and very realistic.”
What can you say about the role of the German secret diplomacy in the release of Khodorkovsky? Was Rahr correct when saying that it was secret diplomacy that allowed Genscher, after two meetings with Putin, to secure the release of the prisoner, the main enemy of the Russian president?
“This is not quite true. Any effective diplomatic effort is more or less secret. It is rather a slogan that is attractive to the German media and readily replicated by them. It is obvious that such conversations are held partially behind closed doors. I do not see anything special about it. The respected political veteran Genscher’s involvement, on the other hand, is of real interest. That is, I see retired politicians still enjoying great prestige as a really interesting phenomenon, unlike the secret diplomacy.”
Is it possible to compare Genscher’s recent actions with what he did 25 years ago in Hungary? According to Rahr, there were a few GDR escaped citizens who wanted to move to West Germany. “It was Genscher who made sure that they were allowed to leave for West Germany, and it was the beginning of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which collapsed in a few months. And now, almost 25 years later, Genscher was able to break another wall, ensuring after long negotiations with Putin that Khodorkovsky has moved to Germany,” the analyst said.
“I do not know where did Rahr get it, but the most striking case was in Prague when thousands of GDR citizens had been sitting on the territory of the German embassy until Genscher himself came and announced from the balcony: ‘You can go to West Germany now.’ It was the summer of 1989. Regarding comparisons with the destroyed or falling walls, it was the last months of the GDR then, and the entire Soviet empire was about to crash. These days, we are dealing with Putin’s regime which has just become stronger. This is the first great, and perhaps most important, difference.
“Moreover, Genscher has not broken any wall in this case. Putin-created police state is still in good repair. The German press is correct to note that this pardon is not an act of law. A pardon issued by an all-powerful ruler has nothing to do with the rule of law and the liberalization of the system, even less so with any wall destruction. This release concerns only one person.”
What to expect, then, from the German government with regard to Ukraine, will its policy change or Germany will keep insisting on Tymoshenko’s release?
“For now, we can say that everything will be frozen at pre-Vilnius stage. Germany will continue this line and wait for shifts to come from Ukraine.”