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Why one oil tycoon expects a pardon from Putin

Former Yukos chief Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2010.
Sovfoto | UIG | Getty Images
Former Yukos chief Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2010.

News that Russian President Vladimir Putin plans to pardon imprisoned former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky surprised even the most optimistic businessmen in Russia, with one oligarch who asked for anonymity describing it to CNBC as "a very strange situation." Others called it a bombshell.

Edward Mermelstein, an attorney who works as an advisor on cross-border investments in the Russian Federation, said it was a move by Putin to defuse criticism of the country ahead of the Sochi Olympics. The Winter Games, set to begin in February, have brought increasing international scrutiny onto Russia and ongoing allegations of human rights violations.

Russia wants the world to see it in a different light before Sochi—and whatever the fallout might be when the 50-year-old Khodorkovsky is freed, Putin will work to carefully manage it, Mermelstein said.

(Read more: Putin says will soon pardon jailed oil tycoon)

Once Russia's richest man, Khodorkovsky is the former head of the Yukos oil company. After supporting opposition political parties, he was imprisoned in 2003 on fraud and tax evasion charges. He has only months remaining in a 10-year prison term.

Asked how "free" Khodorkovsky will really be, Mermelstein said, "Very free. He has not kept quiet while in prison. He will not change post release. This is an obvious liability for Putin, but one that has been calculated to benefit him in the short term."

The Olympics are a big part of Khodorkovsky's expected pardon, but so are economics.

Sources said that economic tightening is going to take place after the Olympics, with Putin pushing to close banking institutions that don't conform to new taxing and banking regulations.

For decades, Russia's tax structure has incentivized Russian ownership of assets outside the country. Putin wants to change that, a move likely to upset many wealthy Russians with political influence in Moscow.

Critics of Putin's administration have pointed out that a pardon of Khodorkovsky raises the possibility of the former oil tycoon speaking out about how Russia, and other countries, may be manipulating financial systems. That possibility has already caused some to draw parallels between Khodorkovsky and Edward Snowden, the former U.S. defense contractor—now granted asylum in Russia—who exposed many secrets of the National Security Agency.

A long-term concern of Putin, sources said, will be whether Khodorkovsky follows Snowden's example.

—By CNBC's Dina Gusovsky. Follow her on Twiiter @DinaGusovsky

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