Russian President Vladimir Putin has surprised opponents and supporters by pardoning fallen businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky and other outspoken critics of the Kremlin. The releases on humanitarian grounds have in an instant improved international perceptions, countering accusations that the leader is an autocrat with profoundly undemocratic policies. Questions abound as to the reasons and timing of the releases, but the natural assumption is that they are tied to February's winter Olympic Games in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. As a means of image-building, the moves are clever, but they will not be any more than a temporary concession to world opinion unless they are part of a wider programme of embracing political and social freedoms. The US, France, Germany, Poland and the European Commission have decided not to send high-ranking officials to the opening ceremony of the games on February 7 to protest against perceived human rights violations. They are part of a rising chorus of voices aimed at Russian authorities' crackdown on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens. But Putin's decision to pardon Khodorkovsky and grant an amnesty to two members of the punk rock band Pussy Riot and people arrested as part of a Greenpeace protest against Arctic oil drilling also comes amid tension between Russia and the West over Ukraine. The tug-of-war between Russia and the EU to woo the nation has sparked violent protests. To Putin's critics, Khodorkovsky's treatment 10 years ago symbolised the leader's autocratic ways and a rotten judicial system. Russia's wealthiest person, he lost favour with Putin by funding political opponents and the independent media. His conviction for fraud, embezzlement and money laundering and the confiscation of his wealth scared off foreign investors. Khodorkovsky is in Germany meeting his family; it is good that he has been freed. But too many opponents of Putin remain in jail or are unable to express their opinions. Change will only come to Russia when people have basic freedoms.