August 17, 2011 7:19 pm

Gorbachev calls for change of Russian leadership

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Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet leader, has called for a change of Russia’s leadership and criticised the ruling monopoly of the United Russia party as a “worse version of the Soviet Communist party”.

In a press conference devoted to the 20th anniversary of the attempted coup by hardliners in August 1991, he both sought to defend his historical legacy, but also scold his successors in the Kremlin.

“Our senior management should be updated,” he told a packed hall of journalists on Wednesday. “There comes a time when you need to get out of this rut.”

Russia’s next presidential elections are in March 2012, but the results will in all likelihood be preordained by political backroom deal-making. Dmitry Medvedev, president, and Vladimir Putin, prime minister, will decide between themselves whether Mr Putin will return for a third term as president, or whether Mr Medvedev will continue for a second term.

“If the regime behaves just to increase its own power then this is already partially authoritarian,” Mr Gorbachev said, adding that authoritarian methods of rule were called for only in special circumstances.

Mr Putin, who is Russia’s paramount political leader, heads the United Russia political party, which is likely to dominate the December parliamentary elections but is often accused of using heavy-handed tactics with the complicity of the Kremlin. Mr Gorbachev said it was time to end Soviet-style political monopolies.

He was clearly making parallels between the hardliners of yesteryear and those of today, though he stopped short of criticising Mr Putin, praising the former president now prime minister for “bringing Russia out of the chaos of the Boris Yeltsin years”, taking a dig at his erstwhile political opponent. Yeltsin was president of Russia from 1991-99.

Mr Gorbachev’s appearance was clearly aimed at showing opponents that he was still fighting fit. The 80-year-old, who launched the perestroika reforms of the 1980s, still commands admiration in Russia, though he is rarely seen in public. While greyer and speaking with effort, he still has a quick grin and razor wit.

“You journalists, foreign and local journalists, you criticise Gorbachev, saying he was weak and flabby. But what if this weak piece of flab had not been at that particular post at the particular moment, only God knows what might have been done to us,” he said, wagging his finger with a smile.

Over the years, he has been criticised for Russia’s humiliation in the cold war, a charge he rejects, and even of being complicit in the August 1991 coup.

A number of experts, including the coup plotters, have made this charge, saying that Mr Gorbachev, who was incommunicado at his official holiday residence for three days between August 18-21, was in fact waiting to see if the coup would prevail before he took sides. The accusation was made by Yeltsin, Russia’s first president, months before he died in 2006.

Mr Gorbachev has rejected this theory, saying it was an attempt by Yeltsin to blacken his name and divert attention from his own complicity in the collapse of the USSR.

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