Mikhail Gorbachev, with a photo of his late wife, Raisa Gorbacheva, in his… (Los Angeles Times )
Reporting from Moscow —
Mikhail Gorbachev, who presided over the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, was marginalized as a political leader as Russians found it hard to forgive him for the economic deprivations that followed. Now, against the backdrop of growing protests against Russian leader Vladimir Putin, Gorbachev has emerged as a vocal critic of the government, and his popularity among the opposition is on the rise.
Gorbachev, 81, spoke to The Times in Moscow this week.
Do you think the past presidential election in Russia was fair?
Despite the authorities' claims to the contrary, like many other people I can't help feeling that the presidential election was not fair, same as the parliamentary election last year. Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] made the election fairness his personal slogan. I don't rule out that he meant it, but the falsifications machine was set into motion regardless of his wish. So many buses [to carry voters] were mobilized for that and so many other things too.
Did you believe Putin would so easily win the vote in the first round?
I was confident Putin would win in the first round. But they needed this 64% to demonstrate that all those who didn't trust Putin and who criticized him were wrong. If the votes had been counted honestly, the result would have been different. And also about 40 million people didn't come to the polls; they ignored the election. This kind of victory leads to a split in the society.
How do you explain a sharp increase in protest activities in Russia?
It was to be expected. Finally people have gotten sick and tired of being had and taken for idiots. After the swindle privatization [that saw state-owned properties sold off in the 1990s], people found themselves in a dire situation. The economy was destroyed and jobs gone. Half of the Russian people were thrown into poverty. But when the economic situation began to more or less stabilize, people began to talk about things they had never agreed with, that they have been deprived of a right of choice.
What served as a detonator for the recent protests?
The focal point was when they [Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev] declared [in September 2011] how they had sat down in the Kremlin and decided on trading president's and premier's jobs behind the people's backs.... They offended the people. This revelation made the people indignant.
Many still trust Putin and want him to go on leading the country. They think that it was he who has pulled them out of poverty. But now when they have [food] to eat, a question of respect arises. People are now terribly irritated by lack of respect. This is the main issue now. I have been talking about it for several years already. People in Russia are separated from the decision-making. The gap between the people and the ruling elite still continues to expand. In this sense, the current situation has brought that issue to a critical line. It is hard to imagine a worse situation. This has become the main topic in modern Russia. And the authorities have grown aware of it.
Before the election, you publicly asked Putin not to take part in it. The protesters demanded the same, didn't they?
I didn't attend any of the rallies — not because I didn't want to, but because of my health condition. But I considered it my duty to publicly take a stand and express my opinion. And not long ago, before the election, I said that Putin had been in power for two and de facto three terms and that it was enough and it was time to leave. He is surrounded now by a whole clan which entangles him like an octopus.
And what was his reaction?
Vladimir Vladimirovich took offense. He is very touchy. If that alone were not enough, he is also rancorous and vengeful, qualities inadmissible in a leader of this level.
I immediately came under attack. Putin asked to pass it on to me that Gorbachev should bite his tongue. I could talk back too, but I won't succumb to that.
Has your position changed now, after the election?
Now that [Putin] has been elected, it makes no sense to talk about his resignation. He must stay but make the right choice. Now everything depends on the choice Putin makes. If he promised political reform simply to cling to power, if he cheated, then it can all end very badly. To take the country out of the deadlock, Putin must see that laws are passed restoring a normal political life in Russia and its democratic development.
Putin promised Medvedev the premier's job in the new government. What do you think about it?
What made me indignant and many others too, for that matter, was how Putin, who was not yet elected president, promised Medvedev the premier's position. Medvedev might be good if entrusted, for instance, with overseeing judicial reform. But it doesn't really matter who will be a premier, as Putin will continue to tackle all the issues himself, including the economy.
What are most important problems that have not been resolved in the last 12 years and that Putin has yet to tackle?