Gorbachev talks! (And Putin won't like what he's saying.)

Mikhail Gorbachev, a man who knows something about losing control of Russia, met with students today and warned of swelling protests against Vladimir Putin if he retakes the presidency.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev delivers a lecture entitled 'My Life in Politics' at the International University he founded, in Moscow, Thursday.

It may be time to add a familiar old face to the gallery of fresh pro-democracy leaders that's been created by Russia's growing anti-Putin street protest movement: the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.

Mr. Gorbachev, now an octogenarian, was one of the first Russian political figures to start warning – more than a year ago – that Vladimir Putin's autocratic, top-down Kremlin-centric regime risked repeating many of the errors that led to the downfall of the USSR and could face a mass challenge from the streets if it failed to implement democratic reforms.

Now that protest movement has materialized and Gorbachev, who faced a popular groundswell of opposition in the dying days of the Soviet Union, is advising Mr. Putin to drop his bid for election to a third presidential term in March 4 polls and leave.

With society turning against him, Putin is no longer able to handle the burdens of the presidency, Gorbachev said during a meeting with students at Moscow's International University today.

"Most likely Putin will manage to become president" in next month's voting, Gorbachev said. The election features a ballot from which most serious challengers have been weeded out. "But if he fails to overcome himself, and the situation in our country fails to change significantly following the presidential election, people will take to the streets again," Gorbachev added.

Gorbachev, who is one of the few Soviet or Russian leaders ever to voluntarily resign, said that Putin is probably incapable of making the necessary changes. Putin has refused to acknowledge popular demands for a replay of the allegedly fraud-tainted Dec. 4 parliamentary elections.

Whatever Putin's personal wishes, he is a prisoner of the "managed democracy" system he created, dependent upon vested interests and trapped between an entrenched bureaucracy and a rising street movement, Gorbachev said.

That's a position that the last leader of the Soviet Communist Party who tried to reform the Soviet system in order to save it ought to understand very well.

"Putin must resign, but something is now in his way. He will not manage it, given the situation, especially with his entourage. They are all appointed and nepotism is rife in Putin's circle," Gorbachev said.

Russia must avoid revolution at all costs, he added. "We can't let it happen. We've already seen what happens on city squares," a reference to the Arab Spring, and its sometimes bloody outcomes.

The only way out, according to Gorbachev, is dialogue between the opposition and the authorities.

"I think we must hold this responsible conversation and see it all the way through, so that we can finally exit this very difficult chapter in our history," he said.

Gorbachev is widely reviled by Russian conservatives as the man who brought the USSR to ruin, and by liberals as the leader who resisted market reforms in a vain attempt to salvage the Soviet Union and its socialist system.

Russia's new street opposition has so far resisted giving him a platform at its rallies for fear of the controversy his presence might generate. Putin's thoughts about Nobel prize-winning Kremlin predecessor's outspoken new role have not yet been publicly recorded.

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