Medvedev rebuffs Gorbachev's warning of 'Egyptian scenario' in Russia. Who's right?

Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev is outspoken about Russia's vulnerabilities to 'the Egyptian scenario' – something the Kremlin denies.

Sergey Ponomarev/AP
Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev gestures during a news conference in Moscow, Monday, Feb. 21. Gorbachev, said that Russia has only 'imitations' of a parliament and judicial system. Gorbachev criticized Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his protege President Dmitry Medvedev for saying that they will decide between them who should run for president in Russia's March 2012 presidential vote.
Alexander Zemlianichenko/Reuters
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev speaks during an award ceremony in Moscow's Kremlin on Feb. 21.

A week after former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev warned that the winds of change now blowing through the Middle East could yet whip up a storm in Russia, the nation's current president vowed that uprisings in the Arab world will not be repeated here.

In comments that betrayed Kremlin nervousness, President Dmitry Medvedev today warned that the pro-democracy wave sweeping Egypt and other countries could bring "extremists" to power.

"Let us face the truth," Mr. Medvedev said, "they have prepared such a scenario for us too, and they will try to carry it out. But this scenario will not pass." He did not elaborate on who "they" might be.

To be sure, Russia is very different from the Middle Eastern societies currently seething with pro-democracy turmoil, but nagging parallels are beginning to worry many in the country's top elite. And who better to make those comparisons explicit than Mr. Gorbachev, the man who tried to foster democracy in the former USSR before being swept from power by the very forces he had unleashed?

"If things continue the way they are, I think the probability of the Egyptian scenario will grow," Gorbachev said in a radio interview last week. "But here it could end far worse."

Gorbachev outspoken in criticisms

Gorbachev has grown increasingly outspoken about Russia's vulnerabilities to Egypt-like unrest, warning in the past that Russia could collapse without sweeping democratic reforms. He describes Russia as a throwback to Soviet times, with muzzled media, sham elections, a Potemkin parliament, a Kremlin monopoly of power, and a corrupt ruling party that's a "bad copy" of the former Soviet Communist Party.

In a Moscow press conference Monday, Gorbachev slammed the political system built by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as an elaborate fraud. "We have everything – a parliament, courts, a president, and a prime minister, but these all are to a great extent just an imitation," he said. In another interview he said that Russia's democratic facade is a "cover for arbitrary rule and [official] abuse ... society has been broken, it's accepted the falsehoods."

Russia is heading into an intense political season, with regional polls next month, elections for a new Duma (parliament) in December, and a presidential vote in just over a year from a field that has not yet declared a single candidate.

Recent regional elections have looked so unfair and blatantly stage-managed that even Medvedev criticized them, although – in what seems to be a pattern with Medvedev – he took no further steps.

Democracit reform needed, says finance minister

Last week, Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin said Russia was not meeting economic growth targets and that foreign investment fell sharply in 2010, suggesting this is happening because Russia lacks sufficient democratic legitimacy to carry out needed reforms.

It is important, he told an economic conference, that the upcoming elections be "fair and honest, that they represent all leading political forces of society. Only this will give the mandate of confidence that is necessary for economic reforms," he said. "If a lack of confidence emerges, we will be unable to fulfill our tasks properly."

That drew a tough rebuke from leaders of the ruling party United Russia, who saw it as an attack on their party's electoral monopoly on the use of government resources and state media as well as – it has been frequently alleged – outright fraud to dominate virtually all the country's legislatures, from the Duma down to small municipal councils.

Tough words for Putin and Medvedev

United Russia is headed by Prime Minister Putin, but its membership is so heavy with officials and others who depend on state largesse that critics describe it as a "trade union for bureaucrats."

Gorbachev described the party, which is headed by Putin, as a "rotting monopoly" that is hampering Russia's democratic development. "United Russia reminds me of a bad copy of the Soviet Communist Party," which Gorbachev himself once led, he added.

But he reserved his toughest words for Putin and Medvedev, who have pledged to decide between themselves which of them will run for president next year.
Gorbachev called that "incredible conceit" and a show of deep disrespect for Russian voters.

"It's not Putin's business. It must be decided by the nation in the elections, by those who would cast ballots," Gorbachev said. "Can't other people also run?"

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