Former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, turning 80, accused Russia’s leaders of rolling back democracy and advised Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to learn from the Arab experience and stay out of next year’s presidential vote.
In a show of respect for a statesman still reviled by millions of compatriots for his role in the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev met Gorbachev and granted him Russia’s highest state medal on Wednesday.
The Kremlin handling of Gorbachev’s 80th birthday underscored the Russian leadership’s delicate ties with a man who helped create the country they rule, but has become an increasingly vocal critic of their tight grip on power.
It came one year before the presidential election in March in which Putin has hinted he will return to the presidency or endorse his protege, Medvedev, for a second term.
“Vladimir Vladimirovich has already served two terms, and one more as prime minister. I would not run for president if I were in his place,” Gorbachev told the weekly Argumenty i Fakty in an interview published on Wednesday.
“People ... do not want to be a mass, a flock led for decades by the same shepherds,” Gorbachev said, pointing to Arab unrest as proof.
Toppled Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak “stayed too long, people were fed up with him,” he said.
Gorbachev said he likes both members of Russia’s ruling “tandem” as people.
“But both of them must understand: Their time is limited,” said Gorbachev, whose 1980s reforms eased decades of oppression in the Soviet Union, but hastened its breakup in 1991.
President from 2000-2008, Putin steered Medvedev into the Kremlin when term limits barred him from seeking re-election. If Putin returns to the presidency next year, he could then run for another six-year term in 2018.
Gorbachev listed several Putin-era electoral reforms he said had deprived Russians of their rights, including the scrapping of popular elections of regional governors and of voting for individual candidates in parliamentary elections.
Asked whether the events of Egypt or Libya could be repeated in Russia, he said: “In Russia nothing is ever repeated, everything happens in its own way. But it is no good to anger people by endlessly taking everything away from them.”
Political analyst Yevgeny Volk said granting Gorbachev the Order of Andrei Pervozvanny was a way for Medvedev and Putin to acknowledge his part in the paving the way for today’s Russia. That could be aimed at bolstering their own legitimacy by drawing a direct line to Gorbachev’s democratic achievements.
Medvedev, who has cast himself as a champion of civil rights and political pluralism but made few changes to Putin’s policies, told Gorbachev the award was “a fitting evaluation of the big work you did as head of state.” But in a careful nod to Gorbachev’s critics, he said that work “can be assessed in different ways” and called the award “a symbol of respect for the state you led ... the Soviet Union.”
Putin, adhering to a birthday tradition dating back to the Soviet era, offered Gorbachev his best wishes in a telegram.
He avoided praising Gorbachev’s role as Soviet leader, making no reference to the post, but saying he “had a noticeable influence on the course of world history and did much to strengthen Russia’s authority.”
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