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Is Russia About to Free Pussy Riot?

Russia doesn't know what to do about its political prisoners. 

To celebrate the upcoming 20th anniversary of the adoption of the Russian constitution in 1993, President Vladimir Putin agreed to free anywhere from 30,000 to a 100,000 prisoners charged with "non-violent" crimes. It would be the widest such amnesty the country has seen in two decades. But Russian officials are now going back and forth on the question of which high-profile convicts will receive amnesty. Rampant speculation has ensued about the fates of imprisoned oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the punk band Pussy Riot, a group of jailed Greenpeace protesters, and opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

The Russian parliament is likely to approve a draft of the legislation this week, but after a dizzying series of contradictory statements from the Russian authorities, very few implications of the legislation can be confirmed. On Dec. 4, Mikhail Fedotov of the Presidential Council on Human Rights caused a stir with a cautious admission that Khodorkovsky, who is serving an 11 year sentence for embezzlement and tax evasion, and the members of Pussy Riot, imprisoned for staging an anti-Putin protest at Moscow's main cathedral, might be let free before their sentences are up. "Yes, I think so," Fedotov answered when asked about their release. Putin, however, was more hesitant, and on Friday, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev further hinted that neither the band nor the former oligarch would fall under the wide-ranging pardon. Following these comments, Fedotov changed his mind as well, saying on Friday that Khodorkovsky would not be exonerated as a result of the amnesty.

Vladimir Karza-Murza -- the senior policy advisor at the Institute for Modern Russia, a think tank headed by Pavel Khodorkovsky, son of Mikhail -- said that the amnesty would not include Russia's better known dissidents, including the elder Khodorkovsky and Navalny. The contradictory statements and "allegedly positive signals," are aimed at keeping up people's hopes, Karza-Murza told Foreign Policy. "They're playing a game of good cop-bad cop." Ultimately, he added, there's only one person who will decide the fate of the prisoners -- Putin.

The pardon will be a second measure of the sort this year, following an "economic amnesty" in the summer, where 110,000 prisoners accused of white collar crimes were initially slated to be released, a number which was reduced by Putin and the parliament to 13,000. As of Dec. 5, only 1,500 prisoners had been discharged.

Next week's legislation is said to allow for the release of certain groups of convicts: pregnant women, disabled prisoners, and veterans. Those with double convictions -- Khodorkovsky, for example, was convicted in 2005 and 2010 -- or those accused of "grave offenses," which includes white collar crimes such as fraud or embezzlement, would be excluded from the bill.

Based on these provisions, two of the Pussy Riot women who have small children could be released, according to Karza-Murza. Eight of the twelve Bolotnaya square protesters, who demonstrated against Putin a day before his May 2012 inauguration could also be freed. On Monday, the Russian newspaper Izvestia provided some support for those predictions, reporting that the initial draft of the legislation includes provisions allowing the release of mothers with little children and prisoners convicted under an article about hooliganism -- which could point toward the release of the two Pussy Riot members, Greenpeace activists, and the Bolotnaya square protesters. But with the Russian government's repeated change of heart on the issue of amnesty, nothing can be treated as a given.

On Friday, Prime Minister Medvedev said that the government would take into account "public opinion" and said that "our people are not inclined to provide amnesty to those who committed violent crimes, those who committed crimes against society, including hooliganism," a likely in reference to Pussy Riot. According to a Friday report by Russian newspaper Kommersant, Greenpeace activists, charged with hooliganism for staging a protest against oil exploration in the Arctic will not fall under the amnesty bill.

But while the Kremlin has strung up its opponents on invented corruption charges, very real corruption cases continue to haunt the government. On Friday, former Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov was charged with negligence in a case alleging that he ordered Russian soldiers to construct a highway at the government's expense to his brother-in-law's lavish dacha. Serdyukov is at the center of a multimillion dollar fraud scandal, and the amnesty law may serve as a convenient way for the Kremlin to make a hugely embarrasing problem go away. "They are imitating a fight against corruption," Karza-Murza said.

In a recent paper for the Legatum Institute, Peter Pomerantsev described the Russian democracy as a "a liquid, shape-shifting approach to power," where the government puts on an elaborate performance to maintain appearances of a functioning democratic state. Nowhere has this become more apparent than in its contortions over the amnesty bill, during which the government has changed its line as the situation requires.

Because in Russia, the show must go on.

VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP/Getty Images

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Why Aung San Suu Kyi is not 'Myanmar's Mandela'

Because of her iconic role in pushing for democracy in a once authoritarian country, Aung San Suu Kyi has often been called Myanmar's Mandela. Now, in the wake of Nelson Mandela's death, Aung San Suu Kyi's ability to navigate one of the more remarkable democratic transitions in recent memory seems particularly significant.

The similarities between Aung San Suu Kyi's life and Mandela's are striking. Both came from relative privilege: He was the son of royals, she is the daughter of the revered Burmese General Aung San. Both became involved in democracy movements and both were jailed -- he for 27 years, she for 20. During their respective imprisonments, they both emerged as national heroes, and later as worldwide democracy icons and nobel laureates. Upon release, both drew criticism for embracing (at least politically) their former jailers. Mandela went on to become the president of his country, ushering in democracy and landmark constitutional reforms. Aung San Suu Kyi is trying to do the same for Myanmar right now.

Aung San Suu Kyi has credited Mandela for inspiring her own struggle, but she generally refrains from drawing parallels. When she expressed her grief at his death on Thursday, she said simply, "I would like to pay him tribute as a great human being who raised the standard of humanity."

Yet his passing begs questions about her future: At what point will their stories diverge? As a newly minted minister of parliament and presidential hopeful, Aung San Suu Kyi is only beginning her formal political career and is dealing with many of the same challenges that Mandela dealt with more than two decades ago. If her presidential bid is successful (it hinges on the constitution being changed to allow her to run), she will be responsible for reconciling a populace that demands justice for years of repression with the military leaders who caused their suffering -- and who still more or less run the country.

Mandela faced a similar dilemma at the beginning of his presidency. His solution, in collaboration with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, was the creation of a truth and reconciliation commission that documented the effects of apartheid, administered reparations to victims, and created a mechanism for prosecuting human rights abusers who did not seek amnesty. Reparations and a public reckoning with the crimes of the apartheid regime were to replace formal criminal justice. The commission is widely hailed as a pivotal part of South Africa's transition and essential to uniting a fractured country.

In Myanmar, U.N. envoy Tomas Ojea Quintana has suggested the establishment of a similar body that would investigate and document abuses committed under the military regime, in an effort to heal old wounds and smooth a bumpy transition. In a general sense, Aung San Suu Kyi is open to the idea, saying she supports "a fact-finding inquiry with accountability, rather than retribution, in mind." But while she seems to welcome the airing of grievances, she is also staunchly opposed to prosecuting the sources of those grievances -- Myanmar's former military rulers. She has stated several times that she will not support the creation of a tribunal in which "those in the previous military regime would be dragged to pay for their sins." She argues that this is all in line with Desmond Tutu's vision of restorative justice. "What I want most of all is reconciliation and not retribution," Aung San Suu Kyi told the Associated Press in 2012.

But her position on the matter, rather than unite the Burmese, has rubbed many the wrong way. Many of those who have suffered the most at the hands of the country's military regime -- dissidents and ethnic minorities struggling for autonomy -- want justice for past abuses, while others accuse her of siding with military at their expense. The Peace Laureate's appearance at a military parade in March antagonized some of her followers, as did her backing of a controversial mining project. Meanwhile, she has stayed strangely silent on the persecution of the country's Rohingya minority and other Muslims.

Mandela faced some of the same criticisms when he welcomed members of the previous government into his own administration, choosing to work side by side with the men who jailed him. Now, however, he's remembered as a genius at "the grand gesture of reconciliation."

It's worth noting, too, that his own truth commission ultimately fell short of its goals. Reparations were slow in coming and victims were given much less than promised. Many prosecutions were unsuccessful and, as a result, security forces responsible for committing grave abuses were never held accountable for their crimes. In it's obituary for Mandela, the New York Times wrote that the truth commission, while generally hailed as successful, ultimately "fell short of both truth (white officials and A.N.C. leaders were evasive) and reconciliation (many blacks found that information only fed their anger)."

One wonders what lessons Aung San Suu Kyi must draw from Mandela's revered, but complicated, legacy. With a truth and reconiliation process all but off the table, how does she plan to heal the country's wounds?