Russian President Vladimir Putin visited renowned human rights activist Lyudmila Alekseyeva on her 90th birthday, reaching out to a prominent and respected critic months before a March 2018 election in which he is expected to run for a fourth Kremlin term.
Putin visited Alekseyeva at her Moscow apartment on July 20, the Kremlin website said. She offered him a glass of champagne and a bite to eat.
Alekseyeva, a Soviet-era dissident who was among the founders of the human rights movement in the 1960s, has been a vocal opponent of what she has described as a dramatic backsliding on human rights and democracy since Putin came to power in 2000.
Putin was full of praise for Alekseyeva, who helped found the Moscow Helsinki Group in 1970s to monitor the Soviet Union's compliance with international rights conventions and has headed it since 1996.
"I am grateful to you for everything that you've done over many, many years for a huge number of people in our country who love you very much and are thankful to you for the life you have lived for the sake of people," the Kremlin quoted him as saying.
But his birthday gift may have been chosen to make a geopolitical point: In addition to a bouquet, Putin gave Alekseyeva an engraving of her native town of Yevpatoria in Crimea -- the Black Sea peninsula that Russia occupied and seized from Ukraine in 2014.
In Russia today, stating that Crimea is not part of Russia can lead to prosecution on charges of separatism.
Putin, 64, has not announced his candidacy, but he is widely expected to seek and secure a new six-year term in the election whose date is likely to be shifted by a week to March 18 -- the fourth anniversary of Russia's takeover of Crimea.
Alekseyeva said that she asked Putin to pardon Igor Izmestyev, a former lawmaker in the upper parliament house who was sentenced to life in prison in 2010 after being convicted of funding a criminal gang authorities said killed 14 people from 1992-2004.
"I told the president: This is not a gift, this is a request -- do this good deed," Alekseyeva, who is frail, told a meeting of the presidential human rights council by video-link later on July 20.
The Kremlin transcript of Alekseyeva's meeting with Putin indicates she told him she believes that Izmestyev is not guilty.
But she said that his guilt or innocence was not the point because "a pardon is not an act of justice but an act of mercy."
Alekseyeva said that Putin promised to pardon Izmestyev, but his remarks in the Kremlin transcript do not include a clear promise to do so.
Alekseyeva and her husband fled the Soviet Union under government pressure in 1977, but she continued her rights campiagning from abroad and returned in 1990 following Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms.
She has participated in numerous protests durin Putin's long period in power, including a series of monthly demonstrations accusing the Kremlin of systematically violating the right to free assembly.
In an interview in 2012, shortly after Putin returned to the presidency following a 4-year stint as prime minister, Alekseyeva told Reuters that when she first met Putin in 2002, she was impressed by his humility and willingness to listen to activists like herself.
But when they met again in 2006, Putin was "a different man" who had come "to believe that everyone wants him to stay in power," she said. "He doesn't understand. It's a terrible thing to have power.... Very few people can handle it properly."