Gorbachev says Russia faces mass unrest if it doesn't democratize

Gorbachev criticized the system of strong and centralized state power restored by Mr. Putin, who came to power aiming to reverse a decade of economic slump, social collapse, and political drift.

Valentina Petrova/AP
Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev attends the international conference 'Europe Looks East' in Sofia, Bulgaria, on Oct. 7.

The last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, has lashed out at the Kremlin tandem of President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and suggested that Russia could be in danger of collapsing as the USSR did if it fails to implement sweeping democratic reforms.

But Mr. Gorbachev's warning that millions of dissatisfied Russians could take to the streets is unlikely to reach a mass audience: He made it in the course of an interview with Snob magazine, which is published by the world's 39th richest man, mining mogul Mikhail Prokhorov, and aimed at an exclusive audience of the most wealthy Russians. (Words like "snob" and "elite" are widely used in contemporary Russian, but do not carry the negative connotations they often do in English).

"[The country is] a swamp of stagnation, apathy, and corruption. The most dangerous [aspect about] this is that pressure, which is accumulating within our society, can erupt in an instant onto the streets with such force that nobody will escape," Gorbachev told a meeting of the magazine's project directors.

"The authorities are not capable of coping with the problems the country faces," he said. "They are not able to bring about improvements ... The only chance to get out of this stagnation is if the people start to participate in decisionmaking. Without modernization of our institutions of democracy there can be no progress. They are now half dead. Who needs this kind of democracy?"

Those are some of the harshest words Gorbachev has uttered about the system of strong and centralized state power restored by Mr. Putin, who came to power aiming to reverse a decade of economic slump, social collapse, and political drift under former President Boris Yeltsin. Gorbachev welcomed Putin at first, but urged him to expand the democratic system and make more room for an active civil society.

Though Putin's Russia has been stable and relatively prosperous, analysts say that elections have become a fig leaf that barely covers the growing dominance of the Putin-led United Russia Party, the media has been largely straitjacketed by Kremlin rules of coverage, and human rights violations are on the rise.

Gorbachev's warning

"When people realize that their opinion doesn't matter and nothing depends on them, they will take to the streets," Gorbachev said. "The enormous patience of our people is multiplied by the indifference of the authorities. And this is fraught with terrible flashes of protest, which will lead to lawlessness. This can't be allowed in Russia, where we have experience [of such things]."

Some say Gorbachev's warning is a timely one, even though there is little sign of mass unrest in Russia's far-flung hinterland, where some 500 small towns and cities depend on a single industry for survival.

Yevgeny Gontmakher, head of the official Center for Social Policy, says Gorbachev's main point is that the Putin-era state bureaucracy has become too rigid, top-heavy, and unaccountable to be able to manage any major economic crisis that might erupt.

"I've talked with Gorbachev many times, and I've noticed that he's evolving into a very sharp critic of Putin and Medvedev," says Mr. Gontmakher. "I basically agree with him. There is a huge gap between the government and civil society. The centralized, top-down system of management, or what Putin calls 'the power vertical,' is very dangerous for Russia. There are no mechanisms for dialogue between the state and civil society. Hence, in a crisis, there is no way to channel popular energies. So, they will inevitably spill into the streets" and leadership will fall to extremists or demagogues, he says.

Gorbachev, who is intensely unpopular among average Russians – who blame him for the collapse of the USSR – was probably wise to tailor his remarks for the readership of Snob, Gontmakher says.

"That's an audience, comprised of economic movers and shakers, who will be extremely attentive to what Gorbachev is saying," he says. "These are the people who should be getting worried" about the growing vulnerability of the Russian system of state authority.

A change in Russian mentality?

A few small examples of unrest have occurred in recent years, including a mass strike in the industrial town of Pikalyovo last year, which Putin finessed by rushing to the scene, agreeing to all the workers' demands, and theatrically upbraiding company managers in a televised press conference.

Gontmakher says that what happened in Pikalyovo illustrates the extreme weakness of a system that requires the personal presence of the prime minister in order to douse a single labor dispute.

Some say Gorbachev is exaggerating. As Soviet leader he sponsored a sweeping democratization of state institutions, but it led to massive economic disruption and social explosion. Putin has clamped down on democracy and free expression, but most Russians have been materially better off.

"This is the first time Gorbachev has spoken this way about Putin and Medvedev, but he's probably not right in his forecasts," says Andrei Kolesnikov, opinion editor of the opposition weekly Novaya Gazeta [part owned by Gorbachev]. "A lot of people do feel that Putin and Medvedev are leading the country in the wrong direction, but Gorbachev underestimates their political apathy.

"The Russian mentality has changed," Mr. Kolesnikov says. "In Gorbachev's time people did take to the streets, but now they are exhausted. People just don't use even the rights they have, to vote and protest. This will take a long time to change."

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