MOSCOW -- Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev has leveled some harsh criticism on Russia's ruling tandem of President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service correspondent Lyudmila Telen, Gorbachev says he is "ashamed" of a system in which the two leaders agree who will head the country without the participation of the population.
He says that restoring the mechanism of free elections is the top priority if Russia is to proceed on a stable path of democratic development.
RFE/RL: What do you think of the political system in Russia today?
Mikhail Gorbachev: Just look at how the present leadership is formed. They select their acquaintances, people with whom they studied, their former neighbors who they played soccer with, people they messed around with and continue messing around with. That is the main thing -- personal loyalty, acquaintanceship, friendly relations. I reject this approach. Absolutely.
Gorbachev: And it doesn't matter that they betray the people instead? Skimming off property and quietly sending money out of the country? Instead of a war on corruption, an imitation? And what is the result? The same pants, only with the zipper in the back, as the people say.
RFE/RL: What is your main complaint about the current authorities in Russia?
Gorbachev: It is too slow in resolving the problems of democracy.
RFE/RL: Slow? That seems like a gentle way of putting it.
Gorbachev: Well, something is being done. Although, yes, there is regression. But you have to look at the process in the context of what is happening around the world. By the end of the 20th century, authoritarian or dictatorial governments in more than 100 countries had exited the political stage. But just a few years later, authoritarian leaders are again beginning to win support among voters.
RFE/RL: Do you have Russia in mind?
Gorbachev: Yes. Look at us -- from the point of view of democracy, we have
From the point of view of democracy, we have everything. We have a parliament; we have courts; we have a press. But the results are vanishingly few.
RFE/RL: In your opinion, why is this?
Gorbachev: We like manual control. And in order to do this, our leaders have to follow fitness programs, build up their muscles, and break things....
RFE/RL: Why are the people who have come to power in Russia so far away from what are normally called the "ideals of perestroika?"
Gorbachev: Because they weren't elected. Those weren't elections.
Since 1989 and 1990, when the union republics held their first democratic elections, we haven't had any genuinely free elections. Remember 1996? They say that [Communist Party leader Gennady] Zyuganov won and that he was even informed of this, But he was frightened off.
RFE/RL: But Vladimir Putin won elections. Even if you concede that some vote-padding was thrown in, there is no doubt that the majority voted for him in 2000 and in 2004.
Gorbachev: Well, if all election campaigns were genuinely free, then among his opponents there would be significantly more representatives of the opposition. Elections would be genuinely competitive, and then it would have been a completely different story.
RFE/RL: Why is the Russian government historically drawn to authoritarianism?
Gorbachev: Well, that depends on who comes to power.
RFE/RL: On personalities?
Gorbachev: Yes. On the person, on his personal qualities, on his experience. What kind of experience do our leaders have? Manual control and the habits of ruling through fear. We have, as Viktor Cherkesov [former head of the Federal Antinarcotics Service] once said, a chekist system.
RFE/RL: Do you agree with that?
Gorbachev: Chekists do dominate. This is not normal. The domination of the special services, their ability to decide political matters, their active interference in the lives of citizens -- this is unacceptable.
That is why I say today: the main problem, problem No. 1, is that we need a renewed electoral system that would give the people the chance to make real choices.
RFE/RL: But you recently predicted that Vladimir Putin would again become president of Russia in 2018. What kind of "restoration" is that?
Gorbachev: I never said that. What is worth talking about is how the leaders of the country discuss the presidential elections among themselves. By the initiative of one or the other, they will discuss their futures among themselves. They say there will come a time when they will sit down and decide who will participate in the election.
This is shameful! I am ashamed of them. They aren't acting humbly. As if we have no society, no constitution, no system of elections, and so on. The two of them will decide. The duumvirate. And what about the 140 million of us out here? I've said many times -- I don't like this. They have already claimed they are the saviors of the country. But I think we are far from that.
RFE/RL: Some people say that the Communist Party "gold" was sent to firms created by the KGB in various countries around the world. Then those companies were privatized by people tied to the secret services. That is how it came to pass that so many rich Russians emerged from these structures.
Gorbachev: I think that our oligarchs and billionaires appeared as a result of the well-known "grab-it-izations." [Eds.: This is a play on the Russian word for "privatizations"]
But here's an interesting fact. When [Boris Yeltsin] was president, he paid an American firm $5 million to locate the accounts of the new nomenklatura, about two dozen people were on that list. And all of them were from the government of [acting Prime Minister Yegor] Gaidar and its entourage.
RFE/RL: And today's authorities, in your opinion, don't have business interests?
Gorbachev: They are hiding stuff, hiding, hiding. They are hiding everything in offshore structures. But everything is written there, and the beneficiaries are governing here.
RFE/RL: Don't you think that such political regimes must end according to the Egyptian scenario?
Gorbachev: Some end up worse than that.
RFE/RL: Do you think such a scenario is possible in Russia?
Gorbachev: Yes, if we waste time. If we don't resolutely defend our rights as citizens. If we don't create an effective parliament that is capable of controlling the executive branch.
Back in Stavropol, we considered the worst collective farm chairman the one who was always running around, giving orders, telling everyone else what to do.
RFE/RL: What are you counting on?
Gorbachev: Once Lenin was asked by journalists, "When will your revolution happen, Mr. Lenin?" And he said, "That is a matter for future generations." That was in January 1917. And the revolution came in February. You see?
RFE/RL: Would you predict the development of political events in Russia?
Gorbachev: No, no.
RFE/RL: Not even, say, 10 years ahead?
Gorbachev: No. The main thing right now is to begin work on reliable democratic mechanisms. Mechanisms that won't allow people to assault political liberties and property rights.
Such a system must begin working -- that is the task. And not a system like we have now. Back in Stavropol, we considered the worst collective farm chairman the one who was always running around, giving orders, telling everyone else what to do.
RFE/RL: Are you drawing a parallel?
Gorbachev: No parallels. Just something that popped into my head.
RFE/RL: When you allowed [physicist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei] Sakharov to return from internal exile, it was seen as a sign of changing times. Do you think the release of [jailed former oligarch Mikhail] Khodorkovsky could be a similar sign?
Gorbachev: Try as I might, I can't figure out who is telling the truth in this. I don't have sufficient information to make any conclusions.
RFE/RL: Don't you think that Khodorkovsky is in prison because Russia's leaders see him as a potential political leader and a possible political competitor?
Gorbachev: I don't think he's a leader. And if they are afraid of him, that is their affair.
RFE/RL: You planned to create your own, social-democratic party. Why didn't this happen?
Gorbachev: I was told, "Why bother doing this when we won't let you register anyway?"
RFE/RL: You mean someone dared to say that to you, Mikhail Gorbachev?
Gorbachev: [Vladislav] Surkov [deputy head of the presidential administration] said it. He told me personally, in conversation. And then he helped create a movement -- the Union of Social Democrats.
RFE/RL: And after he told you that and you made this public, no one among Surkov's bosses corrected him? This was sanctioned from above?
Gorbachev: Well, of course. They probably thought, what is the point of Gorbachev having a party? And Surkov doesn't have to report about how sick he is of Gorbachev.
Remember how Yeltsin, already in retirement, made some critical comments about the authorities while in Leningrad? Putin reacted calmly. "Boris Nikolayevich is retired," he said. "Let him rest and we wish him good health." And so on. The essence, though, was: don't mess with our business.
RFE/RL: Would you wish it for Russia that Putin becomes president again in 2018?
Gorbachev: No. I think in general we should establish that no one may occupy that position for more than two terms.
RFE/RL: Do you think real political competition is possible for the 2012 election?
Gorbachev: So far, I'd say no. But I have the feeling that we are already seeing the emergence of a bloc of people who can find and put forward a person who is capable of vying for the presidency.