Gorbachev criticizes Putin's Russia as backsliding on democracy

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev chose a painful anniversary – that of the 1991 August Coup, which tried to reverse his democratic reforms – to criticize Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Sergey Ponomarev/AP/File
Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev gestures during a news conference in Moscow, in this Feb. 21 file photo.

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the man who originally set Russia on its long and troubled march to democracy, says that under Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's leadership the country is once again in peril of sliding back into authoritarianism.

Mr. Gorbachev made his remarks as Russia approaches the anniversary of a coup designed to overturn his democratic reforms and restore Communist Party rule through force.

The so-called Emergency Committee seized power in Moscow 20 years ago this Friday in a bid to reverse the free elections, media openness, and government decentralization introduced to the Soviet Union by Gorbachev's reforms.

In an interview with the prominent German news magazine Der Spiegel, Mr. Gorbachev appeared to blame Mr. Putin – who is widely believed to be angling for a third presidential term next year – for rolling back some of those reforms two decades later.

"Putin wants to stay in power, but not to resolve at long last our most pressing problems, such as education, public health, and poverty," said Gorbachev. "United Russia [the party led by Putin] wants to maintain the status quo, there is no progress. They are pulling us back into the past, while the country urgently needs modernization.

"People are not consulted, and parties are mere puppets of the regime," he added.

1991 August Coup

In a turbulent 60-hour standoff the August Coup of 1991 was defeated by pro-democracy crowds in Moscow who faced down tanks, as well as by officials across the vast country who abandoned the sinking Soviet bureaucracy and pledged their loyalty to the newly elected Russian administration of anticommunist President Boris Yeltsin.

When the dust settled, much of Gorbachev's vision had been affirmed by events, but the huge multinational state he led, the USSR, as well as his own career, were on a fast track to oblivion.

Gorbachev resigned on Christmas Day 1991, and the red hammer-and-sickle Soviet flag was pulled down from the Kremlin for the last time.

Though Gorbachev originally welcomed Putin, he has grown increasingly critical over the past year.

'A man of principle'

Earlier this year he warned that Russia faces an "Arab Spring" type revolt if democratic reforms are not enacted, and he warned Putin not to seek a fresh term as president in elections slated for next March.

It's probably no coincidence that Gorbachev chose what is for him a very painful anniversary to launch his latest sally against Putin.

"Gorbachev is the man who started the democratic reforms. What he's saying about Putin isn't the position of some analyst but the standpoint of a man who has run this huge country and has a unique perspective," says Nikolai Petrov, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow.

Though Gorbachev might have maintained power by using the military and secret police to crack down on his opponents, he never did that as Soviet leader.

Ironically, he ended up being placed under house arrest during the 1991 August Coup by a group of military and KGB hard-liners who were boiling with frustration over his refusal to use blunt force to preserve Communist Party rule.

"Gorbachev has demonstrated that he's a man of principle, and his behavior has not been a violation of those principles," says Mr. Petrov. "This makes him very different from the vast majority of Russian politicians, and worth listening to today."

The past two decades have been a rollercoaster ride for most Russians, who witnessed the implosion of superpower state they'd grown up in, followed by years of economic hardship, social fragmentation, and wild democratic experimentation that sometimes bordered on anarchy.

When Putin came to power in 2000 he moved to stabilize the economy, rebuild top-down state power, curb elections, rein in civil society and muzzle the media.

The Putin era has brought stability and relative prosperity, but has hollowed-out the democratic processes that Gorbachev championed.

"We have only gone half-way," Gorbachev complained.

"Russian democracy will advance – albeit with pain and much difficulty – and there will be no more dictatorship," although a return to authoritarianism remains possible, he added.

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