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Russia: Gorbachev Sees His Popularity Grow

  • Sophie Lambroschini

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev celebrates his 70th birthday today. The occasion is being marked in Russia's capital city with street banners, media attention, and nearly a week of official festivities. As RFE/RL's Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports, Gorbachev is celebrating not only a birthday but also a popular revival after a decade as a political outcast.

Moscow, 2 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The fanfare surrounding former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's 70th birthday is a public sign that Gorbachev's national comeback may be under way. A political pariah during the Boris Yeltsin years, Gorbachev is now enjoying renewed popularity and may even be looking to refashion himself as an informal adviser to President Vladimir Putin.

Festivities in honor of the man who popularized the terms "glasnost" and "perestroika" -- policies which can be loosely translated as "openness" and "restructuring" -- have lasted nearly a week in Moscow.

They began on 26 February, with a celebration in a city concert hall, where contemporary and Soviet-era singers wished him a musical happy birthday to the tune of the perestroika-era song "We are Waiting for Changes." Several prominent political figures have been invited to a banquet tonight in Gorbachev's honor in a posh hotel.

Banners congratulating the former president are on display on the streets of central Moscow, and newspaper and television reports have also noted the event.

Some of the celebrations have been more intellectual in nature. On 27 February, Gorbachev -- who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 for his role in ending the Cold War and Soviet authoritarianism -- was the first guest in a series of evenings honoring Russian Nobel Prize winners.

And on 1 March, his Gorbachev Fund think tank hosted a roundtable discussion on the topic "Is perestroika our past or our future?" Gorbachev used the occasion to say he is convinced his reforms live on:

"Does perestroika have a future or not, or is it all in the past? It depends on how you look at it. If you look at perestroika as a concept, a strategic choice, then yes, perestroika still has a future. In this sense, it's only developing from the point of view of a strategic choice -- the choice of freedom, of democracy, in favor of humanizing society."

Gorbachev's official political activities are limited to his presidency of the new and largely unknown Social-Democratic Party. But the former leader has many informal roles.

He is still best known as the former president of the Soviet Union, speaking at conferences worldwide and promoting initiatives put forward by the Gorbachev Fund.

He has also used his seat on the advisory council of NTV, Russia's only private nationwide television channel, to make pointed statements about freedom of the press.

All this amounts to a big improvement over the 1990s, when Gorbachev was hated by the public and politicians on both ends of the political spectrum. Accused of being too indecisive with reforms, or resented for his role in the collapse of the Soviet system, Gorbachev found support for many years only in the West.

It was only after the death of his wife Raisa from leukemia two years ago that Russians began to re-evaluate their opinion of the former president. Gorbachev's visible grief throughout his wife's long illness helped changed his public image from an ineffective leader to an ordinary man worthy of compassion.

Gorbachev's political standing also began to improve following Yeltsin's December 1999 exit from the Kremlin.

The two men had been open rivals since the mid-1980s when Gorbachev ousted Yeltsin for criticizing the party elite. In 1991, Yeltsin took his revenge, organizing the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the wake of the failed August coup attempt and leaving the weakened Gorbachev a leader in name only. The 1996 presidential election only served to further humiliate Gorbachev, who took less than 1 percent of the vote while Yeltsin walked away with an easy win.

But all that changed when Putin came to power. Last August, Gorbachev set foot in his old Kremlin office for the first time in 10 years for a private conversation with the current Russian president. Since then, the two men have met again on several occasions.

Perhaps in return for the invitations, Gorbachev has been generous in his evaluation of Putin and policies. Gorbachev's popularity abroad has made him a special asset to Putin, who has earned more suspicion than trust from many Western nations.

Gorbachev has denied that the former KGB agent has any authoritarian leanings, saying: "As a person [and] as a politician, [Putin] seeks to create a state that respects the rule of law."

He has also said that Putin deserves more indulgence, because Yeltsin left behind what Gorbachev calls a "difficult legacy" -- economic, military, and social chaos:

"It's too early to come to any conclusions about perestroika, let alone Putin! Or are we so trivial that we haven't learned anything? We can draw conclusions just thinking about what we got from [Putin]. A new figure came [to power]. This burden literally fell on him -- he didn't have his own team, he didn't have any experience to head [the state]. And in a year, he's come a long way!"

Even in situations where praising Putin could be seen as a compromise, Gorbachev has found middle ground. For example, he has condemned continued government pressure on NTV as an attack on press freedom while at the same time defending the president as simply not knowing the details of the case.

"Does Putin know about all this? We have to help the president so that he is working in accordance with the mandate he got from the people and not according to the [debt] contracts signed by some companies. I think this is our common responsibility."

Russian media have hinted that Gorbachev's surprising loyalty to Putin may be rewarded with an official appointment: either in the presidential administration -- a rumor Gorbachev has denied -- or as Russia's foreign minister, with a mandate to patch up Russia's rocky relations with the West.

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