Russian lawmakers advanced an amnesty bill on Wednesday that is expected to free the jailed punk protest group Pussy Riot and two Greenpeace activists arrested at an offshore oil rig, a transparent attempt to boost Moscow’s blighted reputation on human rights matters ahead of the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games. Rather than a meaningful gesture to redress the country’s highly-politicized judiciary or halt the targeting of opposition figures by security forces, the proposed legislation — which passed the lower house of parliament by a wide margin after being offered by President Vladimir Putin — is simply window-dressing for the international community’s consumption, as it mostly reaches culturally resonant symbols of oppression and not figures like Alexei Navalny, the leader of an Internet-based opposition movement, or Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, a jailed oil baron, who might become credible alternatives to Putin (in the electoral arena or otherwise) sometime in the future.
In that sense, the law will not change the facts on the ground: a political culture wherein the cult of the president’s masculinity is dominant, his approval ratings still high, his influence expanding over skittish neighbors like Ukraine, which is defying a virulent protest movement in tying its economic fate to Russia rather than the rest of the continent. Easing up on some of the least-threatening (more nuisances than anything else) symbols of opposition is a no cost move, providing an air of tolerance to help compensate for the anti-gay dogma that continues to rankle liberal western democracies who plan on participating in the games. A substantial boycott seems unlikely, a testament to Putin’s power and his state-based PR operation. That he has been able to clamp down so harshly on detractors since returning to the presidency last year without consequences from the international community is, at this stage, unremarkable. But now Putin is poised to welcome the rest of the planet to his backyard, reap economic benefits and brush aside human rights quibbles in one fell swoop — a coup if ever there was one.