Staunton, November 7 – Over the last two years, Vladimir Putin has pardoned only five people annually, a rate 13 times lower than under Dmitry Medvedev, just under a thousand times less than under Boris Yeltsin, and in fact lower than the current Kremlin leader’s rate in the first years of his rule, Darya Talanova, head of the data department of Novaya Gazeta says.
Statistics are hard to come by because in contrast to the presidencies of Yeltsin and Medvedev, the Kremlin does not trumpet it acts of mercy and because, after 2001 when Putin abolished the central pardons board, recommendations for such actions passed from Moscow to regional capitals (novayagazeta.ru/articles/2020/11/07/87864-vashi-nemilosti).
These regional bodies meet relatively infrequently, and some of them have never recommended that the Kremlin extend a pardon to a prisoner. They also are generally anything but transparent, Talanova says, neither publishing data on what they do nor responding to media requests such as from her for information.
That makes any analysis of why Putin is pardoning some but not others problematic – much of the necessary data isn’t available – and ensures that the system remains a black box even after the publication of the Novaya gazeta article. But it is not only society at large that now doesn’t know about pardons. Most prisoners don’t either and thus wait for amnesties rather than seeking pardons.
That Putin has adopted a much harsher approach than his two predecessors is no surprise. What is interesting is the way he has used a rare example of decentralization to make it easier for him to escape criticism for the lack of pardons. He can point to the fact that recommendations come from regional bodies, and they bear responsibility for suggesting who should be pardoned.
That shift from a central body to regional ones helps Putin achieve his goal of being tougher on criminals in two ways. On the one hand, people appointed to regional bodies are more likely to follow his general policies than to take a more independent line. And on the other, they face resistance from the population because they consider cases involving local people.
This pattern is a reminder if one is in fact needed that what looks like decentralization at the official level may in fact contribute to just the reverse, the further centralization of outcomes with regional bodies more likely doing exactly what the Kremlin wants than might some all-Russian institution.