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Gorbachev, the Velvet Hammer

Mikhail Gorbachev might not be the most popular guy in Russia, no matter how much respect the outside world might have for his statesmanship.  So although nobody is listening to him, he has been consistently amping up his criticism of the ruling government and the nature of the sovereign democracy model with regard to Russia’s future development.  Here he goes again, speaking from the sidelines of the German-Russian business summit in Hanover:

“If you try to do everything in the country without taking the people into account, while imitating democracy, that will lead to a situation like in Africa where leaders sit and rule for 20 or 30 years,” he said. “The Petersburg project in Russia is over. It has run its course.” (…)

“It would be better” if Putin chose not to seek a return to the Kremlin, Gorbachev said. “If I were in his place, I wouldn’t run for president.” (…)

“More than anything else, I’m worried about our electoral system, how they’re whittling it away,” he said. “It reminds me of when we were in school and there was the joke about someone balancing an uneven chair by slightly sawing down one leg and then another until there are no legs left.”

Ouch.  Such strong and profoundly true statements must hit the leadership like a hammer … or do they?  After so many repeated instances, perhaps these rhetorical blows land rather gently.  You have to wonder if some people are allowed a mild level of criticism of the state apparatus as a way to “let off steam” and achieve the appearance of a marketplace of ideas in Russia.

When the time comes, Gorbachev apparently wants to be on the right side of history.  However it would be altogether more encouraging if there were actually any possibility that change were coming … keep in mind that one of Gorbachev’s close allies, the liberal-garch Alexander Lebedev, with whom he was going to found a new political party back in 2008 (seriously, whatever happened to that?), was most recently cornered into a reluctant endorsement of another Putin presidency after his businesses were put under attack by the Kremlin’s prosecutors.

Not that Lebedev has lost his sharp sense of humor.  After haranguing Putin as a Mugabe-esque figure last week, Lebedev, owner of the UK newspapers The Independent and the Evening Standard, told Reuters:  “There is one boss and I am trying to join his front, with conditions by the way. (…) Nobody knows what the front is about, what are they fighting for — is it just to love Putin or what? Putin is a gift of God, I heard. (…) I am smaller than a mosquito.

So who is being more sincere, Gorbachev or Lebedev?  It appears that if you have reached a certain untouchable stature in Russia, it is OK for you to compare the current political trajectory to that of a struggling African nation … so long as you don’t really try to do anything about it.