What next for Khodorkovsky after his Russian release?
Pardoned oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky may have been released from prison after 10 years, but he will be walking out into a Russia where President Vladimir Putin has solidified his power base with politics and economics controlled by the President's inner circle.
Once Russia's richest man, officials said former oil tycoon Khodorkovsky was released from custody today following a pardon from Putin. A spokesman from Germany's foreign ministry told Reuters this afternoon that Khodorkovsky had landed in Berlin.
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Khodorkovsky, was jailed for tax evasion and theft in 2003 after running foul of Putin's first administration. After two years on remand, Khodorkovsky was jailed for eight years in 2005, and then convicted on new charges in 2010, with his sentence meant to last until 2016. This was cut by two years in December 2012 with his release scheduled for August 2014.
Khodorkovsky made his fortune from the privatization of Soviet state assets and the dominance of his oil company, Yukos. While he was in jail, Yukos was dismantled and sold off to its rivals. What was left of the company filed for bankruptcy in 2006.
Khodorkovsky released a brief statement which read, "On November 12, I asked the President of Russia to pardon me due to my family situation, and I am glad his decision was positive. The issue of admission of guilt was not raised."
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Steven Eke, senior analyst on Russia and the Former Soviet Union at Control Risks, the global risk consultancy, told CNBC in a phone conversation that his "initial reaction is one of extreme surprise, given that as recently as July this year Putin was speaking about Khodorkovsky as somebody facing potentially new criminal charges in 2014."
Eke said that what can be inferred is that, during the time Khdorkovsky has been in prison, Putin has cemented his power and can be assured that his place in Russia is now unassailable.
"Putin no longer considers Khodorkovsky to represent any kind of personal or political threat," Eke said. "Certainly not a threat to the entrenched authoritarian political system that Putin oversees. I would also add that Putin probably believes the political system to be sufficiently stable and predictable to risk freeing Khodorkovsky given that he's given no indication that he will leave Russia."
John Lough, an associate fellow for the Russia and Eurasia program at the independent policy institute Chatham House, said that Khodorkovsky's release is not a turning point for Russia's politics or its economy, but that it was important to understand the calculations of Putin with regard to the international and domestic message it sends.
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"In the run-up to the Sochi Olympics, he (Putin) is looking to portray himself in a different light," Lough said in a telephone interview. "He may have seen the events in Kiev in recent days and weeks as a reminder that you need to keep the more liberal and dynamic part of society in a state of slight suspense and keep them off balance, and you do that through a policy of sticks and carrots."
While Putin has stripped Khodorkovsky of the ability to run for office again and dismantling his company, Lough argued that Khodorkovsky could become a moral figurehead.
"Khodorkovsky became an icon, a martyr figure; somebody who bore his time in jail with extraordinary dignity and strength. He is potentially a powerful moral force in Russian society. What his role will be is absolutely unclear."
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Khodorkovsky has said he does not want to enter the political realm again, and as a convicted criminal he is barred from running for office. Plus, Eke believes there is little chance of him re-entering the energy sector or the business world?
"If you look at it from the commercial point of view and what it means for the oil and gas sector, I think there will be very little impact," he told CNBC. "If we recall, Yukos was the largest private company in the energy sector. It was broken up completely, its assets were returned to state control at the time of Khodorkovsky's arrest and prosecution. That sector has become subject to much stronger state control in general."
Eke said that the relationship between Putin and the large oil and gas companies, which are run by his close associates, has come as a reaction to Khodorkovsky, who used his company's power to run for office. Now, the status quo was that if you wanted to run a company, you could never question the political powers that be.
"I don't think we'll see a private sector entrepreneur or businessman of Khodorkovsky's status come to the fore in the foreseeable future at least," Eke said.