RUSSIA: by Joseph PoprzecznyNews Weekly
Gorbachev denounces Putin for "castrating" democracy
, September 3, 2011
Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev has accused Russia’s current prime minister Vladimir Putin of “castrating” the country’s electoral system and said he should not run for president.
Mr Putin radically altered Russia’s voting system during his two terms as president, and is widely expected to stand for the position again in 2012.
Mr Gorbachev also criticised Russia’s current leadership, claiming it was hindering the country’s efforts to modernise.
He said the only way its obstructive influence can be overcome is by instituting free elections and allowing the emergence of new leaders.
Speaking at a news conference marking the 20th anniversary of the failed August 1991 coup by communist hardliners opposed to his perestroika reforms, Gorbachev, 80, said Russia will only be revitalised by adopting real democratic reforms.
On being asked who should become Russia’s next president, Gorbachev said: “We need a change in the top leadership. There comes a time when you have to get out of a rut.”
“We need free elections. ... People must feel something depends on them.”
Political pundits are split over whether former president Vladimir Putin, who completed two terms and is now Russia’s prime minister, or his protégé, Dmitry Medvedev, should lead Russia.
Gorbachev refused to endorse either. “In short, I am dissatisfied,” he said. “The current policy proposals and the current government are a move backwards.”
Putin is not constitutionally barred from seeking a third term as president in the election due next March.
Neither Putin nor Medvedev has yet declared his candidacy.
Critics of Russia’s electoral system say that the Putin-created United Russia Party lacks legitimacy because its greater access to the media and campaign resources give it an unfair advantage.
Putin’s opponents are fragmented and lack the resources to break the current regime’s hold on power.
Gorbachev said that Russia must end such political monopolisation since this too closely resembles the old Soviet era.
Putin and his allies “are creating unnecessary organisations and fronts now”, Gorbachev warned. “We don’t need them.”
Gorbachev became a member of the Communist Party’s central committee in 1971 and was promoted to the Politburo in 1979 after which he grew close to the then KGB boss and later Soviet leader Yuri Andropov.
Gorbachev visited the United Kingdom in 1984, where he made a positive impression on Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the Western media.
In 1985, he became General-Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, a post he held until 1991.
In an interview with the BBC to commemorate two decades of Russia’s post-Soviet years, he admitted he didn’t begin as a reformer.
He was staunchly patriotic and a committed Communist.
“I was a loyal citizen,” he told the BBC. “And proof of that is that I chose Stalin as my special topic for my final school exams. The title I chose was ‘Stalin is our Glory in Battle, Stalin is the Wings of our Youth’. No-one dragged me into joining the Communist Party.”
He said he began having doubts about communism after he’d commenced studying at Moscow University in 1950. Stalin’s death in March 1953 led to a thaw in the Soviet Union and this included a degree of liberalisation in intellectual life.
At the time, Gorbachev became friends with a Czech student, Zdenek Mlynar, who would come to have a crucial impact upon him.
“Zdenek was my dearest friend,” said Gorbachev. “He was closer to me than anyone else, Soviet or otherwise. He was so clever, and it was my luck to be friends with him. Our views coincided on many points.”
Less than 15 years later, Mlynar emerged as one of the chief architects of the Prague Spring of 1968, when Czechoslovakia’s communist leader Alexander Dubcek embarked on a short-lived experiment to build “socialism with a human face” — until the Soviet Union and neighbouring Warsaw Pact countries invaded Czechoslovakia on August 21 of that year to re-impose totalitarian communist rule.
Mlynar told the BBC that he and Gorbachev originally met in 1953 in Stavropol province where Gorbachev was regional Communist Party chief.
“It seemed to me he understood very well what I was talking about,” said Mlynar in an interview shortly before he died in Vienna in 1997. “But he said that while it might work in Czechoslovakia, it wouldn’t work in the Soviet Union.”
Years later, Mlynar wrote a political manifesto, Towards a Democratic Political Organisation of Society, which was released at the height of the Prague Spring. This was followed by an insider’s account of the suppression of the Prague Spring, titled, Night Frost in Prague: The End of Humane Socialism.
According to Gorbachev, the crushing of the 1968 Prague Spring by Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces meant he fell into line with the official Soviet denunciation of moves to liberalise communist rule. But during his visit to Czechoslovakia in the following year, his private conscience got the better of him.
“We arrived and it was shocking,” he said. “People didn’t want to talk to us. We’d been told they wanted our support, including the military action. But it wasn’t true. It was disinformation. We visited one factory and people turned their backs on us. It really hit me hard.”
This would mean he could not forget the lessons of the Prague Spring.
But another lesson from those years was that moves for reform should not be too quick.
This was why the first phase of Gorbachev’s perestroika was characterised by calls, not to overthrow the existing system, but to “accelerate” and “perfect” it.
“In some ways I was late, but in some ways I wasn’t slow enough,” he insisted.
Joseph Poprzeczny is a Perth-based historian and writer.
“Mikhail Gorbachev: The great dissident”, BBC News, August 12, 2011.
Timothy Heritage, “Gorbachev calls for change of leadership in Russia”, Reuters, August 17, 2011.
“Gorbachev says Putin ‘castrated’ democracy in Russia”, BBC News, August 18, 2011.