Editorial: Putin's change only for show
The passage of amnesty legislation freeing some high-profile prisoners, and the even more dramatic release of the former Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khordokovsky, are a marked change of tack for the authoritarian Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Ever since his first election to the presidency in the 1990s, Putin's reign has, as befits a former KGB man, been marked by iron-fisted repression rather than by any signs of clemency.
Jailing or hounding into exile anyone who showed any hint of political opposition, cracking down on almost all effective critical media outlets and concentrating power in his office in the Kremlin, where he surrounded himself with like-minded former KGB cronies, he has taken Russia a considerable way back to the dark days of communist despotism that many thought had gone for good after the liberal reforms of the 1980s and 1990s.
Earlier this month, however, the Russian Parliament passed an amnesty bill allowing the release of several thousand minor offenders. Since then members of the Pussy Riot feminist group have been freed and Russian authorities have indicated that charges against several dozen people arrested during a Greenpeace oil-rig protest in the North Sea may be dropped. In a separate development, Putin pardoned Khordokovsky and allowed him to leave the country.
It would be a mistake, however, to believe that Putin has undergone any significant change of heart.
As one of the Pussy Riot women rightly (and bravely) said on her release, it was no humanitarian impulse that had brought her freedom but rather Putin's desire to get rid what was turning out to be a considerable thorn in his side in the run-up to the Winter Olympics in Sochi in February.
Until now, Putin has regarded Western and other critics of his despotic ways with contempt.
But billions have been poured into making the Winter Olympics a sporting showpiece, designed to publicise the achievements of modern Russia.
Constant pressure about political prisoners, along with talk of boycotts and protests, were threatening to become a distraction to that aim.
Putin will have calculated that releasing Khordokovsky, who had been in jail for 10 years, and the Pussy Rioters would have seemed a small price to pay if it reduced that distraction.
Whether it will work is another matter. Khordokovsky has said he will do all he can to help those still in prison in circumstances similar to his.
His assistance will be limited by the fact that he has left Russia and cannot return for fear of further legal harassment, but he has emerged with his moral authority greatly enhanced by the corruption of the process that put him behind bars.
The Pussy Rioters, too, have come out of jail apparently uncrushed by the experience and determined to continue to make life uncomfortable for Putin.
But if it keeps the heat off the Kremlin until after the Winter Olympics it will have served its purpose.
There has been no change to the basics of Russian system and particularly to a justice system that acts as an arm of the president's office.
Once the Games are over, Putin can be expected to return to repressive government as usual.