MIKHAIL GORBACHEV, once the most powerful man in the now defunct Soviet Union, asks the world to view him as a victim of political repression.
This supposed twist of fate is the result of a decision by the Russian government last Friday to bar Mr. Gorbachev from leaving the country until he complies with a demand to testify before the Constitutional Court. The court summoned him as a witness in its landmark case on whether to uphold Russian President Boris Yeltsin's ban of the Soviet Communist Party, which Gorbachev once headed.
In response to this ban, Gorbachev has wrapped himself in the garb of a human rights dissident, even evoking the title attached to Jews and other dissidents barred exit from the Soviet Union.
"The first [and last] Soviet president has been turned into the first political `refusenik' of Russia," Gorbachev's press office declared Oct. 3.
Gorbachev's spat with the court is only the latest in a series of public skirmishes with Yeltsin and his government. The former Soviet leader, who was ousted from office last December as the Soviet Union crumbled, no longer conceals his opposition to Yeltsin, nor his desire to make a political comeback.
When the court summoned him to testify, Gorbachev publicly dismissed the proceedings as a political show. He directed this not only at the president's representatives, who seek the approval of the ban, but also at the former Communists who are suing for its reversal.
The former Communists, too, have been eager to have Gorbachev testify, in part to force him to acknowledge responsibility for the collapse of the country and the party.
In his open letter issued Sept. 29, Gorbachev directed most of his fire at the Yeltsin government for using the anti-Communist trial to distract the public from his failed economic reforms.
"The other side [Yeltsin's], losing social support and looking for a scapegoat, puts our history in the dock to prove the party was unconstitutional," he said. "This could pave the way for suppression of dissent."
Gorbachev also charged that the decision to summon him was an effort to revive interest in the long drawn out hearings which seemed to be stumbling to an uncertain conclusion.
Court chairman Valery Zorkin said the purpose of the testimony was to determine whether the Communist Party was a political party or simply part of the Soviet state structure. The court has also sought to nail down assertions that state funds were used for party purposes, such as the millions of dollars annually handed out to foreign communist parties.
But observers of the court proceedings have suggested that the court was facing a difficult impasse. It was unable to find a way to uphold the president's ban, taken in the wake of the failed hard-line coup last August, while also recognizing the constitutional right of the former Communists to organize.
One suggested solution was that both sides withdraw their suits, allowing the Communists to reconstitute themselves as a new party.
Meanwhile public interest in the case has fallen away. The decision to call Gorbachev has been criticized by some as a move to revive the slogging trial. "If Mikhail Gorbachev finally appears before the Constitutional Court, the process will have become fully political," wrote observer Olga Bychkova in the liberal Moscow News weekly.
Still, Gorbachev's refusal to heed the court's summons places him in a awkward confrontation with the law.
"Respect the Constitution, Mikhail Sergeyevich," the liberal daily Izvestia wrote on Oct. 3. "Summon your courage and face the court and the country. It's difficult. But this is not an outstanding act; it is the basic duty of a law-abiding citizen."