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Gorbachev, Billionaire Lebedev To Form New Party

Gorbachev and Lebedev speaking in 2007
MOSCOW (Reuters) -- Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev will join forces with Russian tycoon Aleksandr Lebedev to launch a new political party independent of the Kremlin, the billionaire businessman said on September 30.

Gorbachev, 77, won the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize for allowing the peaceful revolutions the previous year that brought democracy to Eastern Europe after decades of Soviet control.

Though hugely admired in the West, he is deeply unpopular at home for presiding over the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union that led to economic and political chaos. When he last ran for president, in 1996, he won just half a percent of the vote.

Gorbachev initiated plans for the new party, Lebedev said on his website. "He gave our people freedom but we just can't learn how to use it," wrote Lebedev, who said the provisional name of the new party is the Independent Democratic Party.

The party will press for legal and economic reform and promote the growth of independent media, according to Lebedev, who does not plan to bankroll the party himself but said it should be financed only from "non-state sources."

He said the party favored "less state capitalism," the development of independent media, reform of the justice system and a stronger role for parliament, adding that it would take part in elections.

However, Mikhail Kuznetsov, the deputy chairman of Gorbachev's present political organization, the Union of Social Democrats, said winning seats was not the objective.

"Mikhail Sergeyevich [Gorbachev] is not striving to take seats in parliament; he is going to establish an independent democratic party and its task will be to let young people find fulfillment in new politics," Kuznetsov said.

Gorbachev declined to comment when contacted by Reuters.

He has in the past criticized many of the electoral practices of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's Unified Russia party, but has stopped short of attacking Putin himself. Gorbachev also backed Russia's role in last month's war with Georgia, which was widely condemned in the West.

Putin, who was president until this year, has been accused in the West and by Russian liberals of stifling free expression and the development of multi-party democracy.

"There will be no extremists," Lebedev said of the new party's membership, suggesting that economists and members of the failing right-wing SPS party would be welcome to join.

Lebedev's National Reserve Corp. controls over 30 percent of Russian flag carrier Aeroflot, in which the Russian state holds a majority. He and Gorbachev both have stakes in the independent newspaper "Novaya gazeta," where murdered journalist and Kremlin critic Anna Politkovskaya worked.