Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, turning 80, accused Russia's leaders of rolling back democracy and advised Vladimir Putin to learn from the Arab experience and stay out of next year's presidential vote.
"Vladimir Vladimirovich has already served two terms, and one more as prime minister. I would not run for president if I were in his place," Gorbachev said in comments published on Wednesday, his birthday, in the weekly Argumenty i Fakty.
"People ... do not want to be a mass, a flock led for decades by the same shepherds," Gorbachev said, pointing to Arab unrest as proof. Toppled Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak "stayed too long, people were fed up with him," he said in an interview.
A year before a presidential election in which Putin, now prime minister, has hinted he will run himself or endorse President Dmitry Medvedev for a second term, Gorbachev said Russia's ruling "tandem" cannot stay in power forever.
"Both of them must understand: their time is limited," said Gorbachev, whose 1980s reforms eased decades of oppression in the Soviet Union but hastened its breakup in 1991.
After eight years as president, Putin steered Medvedev into the Kremlin in 2008 when term limits barred him from seeking re-election. If Putin returns to the presidency in a March 2012 election, he could then run for another six-year term in 2018.
Chosen to lead the Soviet Union in 1985 as head of its Communist Party, Gorbachev pried the tight-lidded Soviet system open with his glasnost and perestroika policies, which increased civil freedoms and eased economic controls.
Amid growing pressure for independence from the 15 Soviet republics, an August 1991 hardline coup failed but weakened Gorbachev's hold. On Dec. 25 of the same year, he stepped down as leader of a country that had ceased to exist.
BOTH REVILED AND CELEBRATED
But he is reviled by many in Russia who lament the Soviet collapse and harbor anger over the economic hardships that accompanied it.
"To me, he is a good-for-nothing man," said Sergei Orlov, a 53-year-old Moscow lawyer. Gorbachev "simply betrayed his people, he destroyed the mechanism of the state and sold his country for nothing."
Others remember Gorbachev for his reforms and accuse Putin of stripping away the democratic gains secured under the last Soviet leader and the first Russian president, Boris Yeltsin.
"Without him, Yeltsin would not have succeeded in building a democratic society and we would all be living in a different country today," said Irina Medvedeva, a visitor to a photo show on Gorbachev and his era near the Kremlin.
Over the past few years, Gorbachev has stepped up public criticism of Putin and the political system he dominates.
In the interview, he listed several Putin-era electoral reforms he said had deprived Russians of their rights, including the scrapping of popular elections of regional governors and of voting for individual candidates in parliamentary polls.
Asked whether the events of Egypt or Libya could be repeated in Russia, Gorbachev said: "In Russia nothing is ever repeated, everything happens in its own way. But it is no good to anger people by endlessly taking everything away from them."
Medvedev met Gorbachev and awarded him Russia's top medal, calling it "a fitting evaluation of the big work you did as head of state" -- but, in a careful nod to Gorbachev's bitter critics, said that work "can be assessed in different ways".
He also called the award "a symbol of respect for the state you led ... the Soviet Union."
Putin, adhering to a birthday-greeting tradition dating back to the Soviet era, offered Gorbachev his best wishes in a telegram and said that "in our country and far beyond its borders you are known as one of the prominent modern statesmen."