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No Turning Back for Russia, Gorbachev Says

Despite problems with his country's democracy, the ex-president believes totalitarianism is dead.

March 04, 2004|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — For much of the world, he is the voice of Russian democracy, the man who, in one of the world's most repressive nations, opened a door called perestroika to a pluralistic future and helped end the Cold War.

But with increasing frequency, former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev is being called on to defend Russia against fears that the world's largest nation is slipping back toward its authoritarian past.

He is blunt: "I don't think we have had a really free and fair election" since 1990, Gorbachev said Wednesday. Instead of the largely free media that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, he said, "there are problems with limiting freedom of speech" on government-run television channels.

But in a wide-ranging interview, Gorbachev rejected claims that President Vladimir V. Putin, a former KGB agent running for reelection in March 14 voting, is pulling the country toward totalitarianism, and warned the West against applying too much pressure to push Russia toward a more democratic future.

"Yes, we need to be concerned," Gorbachev said. "Particularly given that the parliamentary election campaign and the presidential election campaign have aroused passions. And yes, there is a sense of exacerbation. But in Russia, let me assure you, authoritarianism is a thing of the past.

"A return to an authoritarian regime will not happen," he added. "It's no longer possible. Not today, and certainly not possible when the younger generation of Russians will be assuming all power, all responsibility for the country."

Gorbachev reserved his sharpest warnings for the United States and Europe, which in recent months have been critical of Russia on issues such as the arrest of former Yukos Oil Co. Chairman Mikhail Khodorkovsky, state takeover of most television broadcast networks, alleged human rights abuses in Chechnya and elections in December that resulted in the pro-Putin United Russia party gaining a virtual lock on parliament.

"My impression is that the West, the United States, and perhaps Europe even more than the United States, were happy when Russia was lying face down. But Russia cannot lie face down. Russia will not be stifled," he said in remarks uncharacteristically defiant for a politician who has been one of his nation's chief bridges with the West.

"Russia will reject Putin or anyone else if the current situation doesn't change," he said. "Putin has a chance now to change the situation. It's a new chance. Russia is rising, Russia is beginning to move ahead. It will be moving faster, and those ... who are trying to drive Russia into a corner would be making a mistake."

Putin, elected in 2000 and expected to easily win a second term, has engineered the beginnings of an economic recovery, guaranteeing wage and pension payments and boosting production. But critics say the relative stability has come at the expense of a free broadcast media and free elections. Opposition candidates have little backing and limited access to the media, and Putin has refused to debate his six opponents.

Gorbachev was the first -- and last -- president of the Soviet Union, and his moves to open the communist behemoth to Western political and economic ideas are blamed by many Russians for the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of the nation's status as a superpower and the beginning of years of economic crisis that reached their peak under the leadership of his successor, Boris N. Yeltsin.

"Gorbachev's popularity rating in Russia ranges between 0.5% to 1%, which makes it clear that his opinion is of no relevance in Russia," said Vyacheslav A. Nikonov of the Politika Foundation in Moscow.

"At the same time, Gorbachev's opinion is reckoned with in the West to a much greater degree ... and on the whole, Gorbachev can be considered there one of the most authoritative Russians," Nikonov said.

In recent years, Gorbachev has headed his own political and charitable foundation and spoken out around the world on democracy, disarmament, globalization and Russian politics. He won a Grammy Award last month, along with former President Clinton and actress Sophia Loren, for narrating "Peter and the Wolf," a CD based on the symphony by Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev.

Gorbachev, who turned 73 this week, has been largely supportive of Putin but unmistakably critical of the December parliamentary elections that resulted in United Russia and its allies winning more than 300 seats, and every committee chairmanship, in the 450-seat legislative assembly.

"I don't like the way the elections happened, and I don't like the way the elections are happening now," he said.

Though there has been improvement in legislation regarding media coverage of campaigns, "the achievements in terms of having really free and fair elections are very few," Gorbachev said. Voter turnout was so low in December, he said -- less than 56% -- that the ruling party now "actually has the support of only a small section of the people."

In the end, he said, it will be up to Putin to set the course.

"The president's position will be decisive," Gorbachev said. "If he uses his power to continue democratic reforms, to modernize the country, to address the country's many problems, then Russia will move forward. If he uses power only to retain power, to make his own power even firmer, then this, for me, would be a big disappointment."

Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.

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