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The Sultan of Sochi

NEW YORK – Russian President Vladimir Putin’s pardon of the former owner of Yukos Oil Company, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and his declaration of an amnesty that has freed Greenpeace activists and two members of the punk rock/protest group Pussy Riot are welcome gestures. But that is all they are: gestures.

Putin was most likely motivated, above all, by a desire to ensure the success of the upcoming Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. It is also likely that Putin sought to show the world a kinder, gentler face in an effort to consolidate victory in his tug of war with the European Union over Ukraine.

But, although freeing a few people who were unjustly imprisoned for long periods is significant, it should not obscure the Russian government’s ongoing major human-rights violations at home and abroad. And here, little seems likely to change. Khodorkovsky’s pardon does not look like the start of a Putin thaw.

For example, within the Russian Federation, a law that entered into force just over a year ago requires non-governmental organizations that engage in “political activities” to register as “foreign agents” if they receive any funding from abroad. The law defines political activities as actions intended to influence government policies; therefore, they include the work of all human-rights organizations operating in Russia. Because registering as foreign agents would be to identify themselves as the equivalent of spies, few organizations have done so.