Mikhail Gorbachev, who presided over the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, was marginalized as a political leader as Russians found it hard to forgive him for the economic deprivations that followed. Now, against the backdrop of growing protests against Russian leader Vladimir Putin, Gorbachev has emerged as a vocal critic of the government, and his popularity among the opposition is on the rise.
Gorbachev, 81, spoke to The Times in Moscow this week.
Do you think the past presidential election in Russia was fair?
Despite the authorities' claims to the contrary, like many other people I can't help feeling that the presidential election was not fair, same as the parliamentary election last year. Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] made the election fairness his personal slogan. I don't rule out that he meant it, but the falsifications machine was set into motion regardless of his wish. So many buses [to carry voters] were mobilized for that and so many other things too.
Did you believe Putin would so easily win the vote in the first round?
I was confident Putin would win in the first round. But they needed this 64% to demonstrate that all those who didn't trust Putin and who criticized him were wrong. If the votes had been counted honestly, the result would have been different. And also about 40 million people didn't come to the polls; they ignored the election. This kind of victory leads to a split in the society.
How do you explain a sharp increase in protest activities in Russia?
It was to be expected. Finally people have gotten sick and tired of being had and taken for idiots. After the swindle privatization [that saw state-owned properties sold off in the 1990s], people found themselves in a dire situation. The economy was destroyed and jobs gone. Half of the Russian people were thrown into poverty. But when the economic situation began to more or less stabilize, people began to talk about things they had never agreed with, that they have been deprived of a right of choice.
What served as a detonator for the recent protests?
The focal point was when they [Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev] declared [in September 2011] how they had sat down in the Kremlin and decided on trading president's and premier's jobs behind the people's backs.... They offended the people. This revelation made the people indignant.
Many still trust Putin and want him to go on leading the country. They think that it was he who has pulled them out of poverty. But now when they have [food] to eat, a question of respect arises. People are now terribly irritated by lack of respect. This is the main issue now. I have been talking about it for several years already. People in Russia are separated from the decision-making. The gap between the people and the ruling elite still continues to expand. In this sense, the current situation has brought that issue to a critical line. It is hard to imagine a worse situation. This has become the main topic in modern Russia. And the authorities have grown aware of it.
Before the election, you publicly asked Putin not to take part in it. The protesters demanded the same, didn't they?
I didn't attend any of the rallies — not because I didn't want to, but because of my health condition. But I considered it my duty to publicly take a stand and express my opinion. And not long ago, before the election, I said that Putin had been in power for two and de facto three terms and that it was enough and it was time to leave. He is surrounded now by a whole clan which entangles him like an octopus.
And what was his reaction?
Vladimir Vladimirovich took offense. He is very touchy. If that alone were not enough, he is also rancorous and vengeful, qualities inadmissible in a leader of this level.
I immediately came under attack. Putin asked to pass it on to me that Gorbachev should bite his tongue. I could talk back too, but I won't succumb to that.
Has your position changed now, after the election?
Now that [Putin] has been elected, it makes no sense to talk about his resignation. He must stay but make the right choice. Now everything depends on the choice Putin makes. If he promised political reform simply to cling to power, if he cheated, then it can all end very badly. To take the country out of the deadlock, Putin must see that laws are passed restoring a normal political life in Russia and its democratic development.
Putin promised Medvedev the premier's job in the new government. What do you think about it?
What made me indignant and many others too, for that matter, was how Putin, who was not yet elected president, promised Medvedev the premier's position. Medvedev might be good if entrusted, for instance, with overseeing judicial reform. But it doesn't really matter who will be a premier, as Putin will continue to tackle all the issues himself, including the economy.
What are most important problems that have not been resolved in the last 12 years and that Putin has yet to tackle?
A multitude, really. To name but one, people want the issue of the [state] property distribution to be readdressed. They want this question of the fraudulent privatization of the '90s to be resolved fairly and not by law of the underworld. Now the authorities say they don't know how to do it, that it may lead to disturbances. Well, they knew how to steal.
Do you think Putin is capable of real political reform?
Vladimir Vladimirovich has recently said many important things, and to some extent, he has agreed with the position of the protesters. Supreme efforts are needed to improve the situation. If he goes in that direction, people will follow him and offer him their support. But for that he needs to be president of the entire people and not just some part of it.
What other challenges does Putin face in his new presidency?
The main challenge for Putin is to take the country out of the dead end. This is impossible without the support and consent of the people. There is only one way for Putin to enjoy the people's support, which is to further develop democracy.
Putin has handed out tens of billions of dollars worth of promises. Frankly, it is not quite clear how he will be getting out of it. Maybe he really has that money. After all, in the entire 12 years that he is in power, oil has rarely fallen below $100 per barrel.... Compared to $10 to $20 per barrel in my time. I don't even want to speculate what might happen if oil falls to $20 now.
The country still doesn't have an industrial policy. In fact, what happened during all these years is the deindustrialization of the country. Hundreds of enterprises ceased to exist....
To win back the society's trust, to deliver on all the promises he has made, and to resolve at least the basic problems the country is faced with, he needs to mobilize himself and 200% of his potential. With 100% mobilization, he won't be able to resolve all these tasks. I have grave doubts that he is up to the task, that he is capable of pushing the cart out.
Should Putin free [jailed tycoon Mikhail] Khodorkovsky as one of his first steps to unite the split society?
I think Putin should include on his agenda the question of freeing Khodorkovsky, who has been sitting in prison for so long and behaves with such dignity. This will mean a lot for the society and the country. It will be an indication that the country is beginning to move toward democracy. The society demanded this should be done. It would be wrong not to respond to this demand.
When did you last meet with Putin?
About a year ago.
Would you like to meet with him again now?
It doesn't make sense anymore. I have already spoken out about everything.... It is necessary to act now without slyness and deception. If Vladimir Vladimirovich decides that it is possible to continue to fool around with us, this will not work.
The people made clear: They won't allow themselves to be fooled anymore.