Russia risks 'lost years' under Putin, warns Gorbachev

AFP , Monday 26 Sep 2011

The USSR's last leader Mikhail Gorbachev warns that Russia risks six lost years if Vladimir Putin returns to the presidency, expressing dissent over the comeback

Mikhail Gorbachev echoed concerns of liberals that Russia was at an "impasse" and doubted whether Putin -- who served two terms as president to 2008 and has dominated Russia for a decade -- was the man to implement change.

The announcement at the weekend that Putin, currently prime minister, will stand for president in 2012 and swap posts with Kremlin incumbent Dmitry Medvedev, sparked no mass protest actions in Russia.

However, long-serving Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin appeared to take the authorities by surprise and spoiled their party by announcing he had no intention of serving in a post-election government.

"It will be his mistake if the future president leaves everything without changes, thinks only about how to stay in power and tries to keep the old team -- who are the ones to blame for how things are," Gorbachev said.

"We can assume that there will be no movement forward if there are not serious changes along the lines of a replacement of the entire system," he wrote in the opposition Novaya Gazeta newspaper which he part owns.

"Without this we could lose six years. I think that the future president needs to think about this very seriously."

With the presidential mandate now expanded to six years from four, Putin could in theory serve two more terms to 2024, by which time he would be 72 and the longest serving Moscow leader since Joseph Stalin.

Boldly, the Novaya Gazeta printed on its front page caricature sketches of Putin, Medvedev and other members of the elite as they would look as old men in 2024, in the medal-festooned uniform of Soviet nomenklatura officials.

Kudrin has so far proved the main dissenter from Russia's new power scheme, dubbed a "castling" by official media after the move in chess when the king changes places with the rook.

He said he had major differences with Medvedev whom he accused of seeking to ramp up spending -- in particular on the military -- to the detriment of Russia's budgetary position.

But the Kommersant daily suggested that other issues may have also prompted the surprise announcement by Kudrin, who has been in his post since 2000 and is the longest serving finance minister among world powers.

"They (the ruling elite)... promised that he would become prime minister in 2012. But now we know who that will be," it quoted a source as saying.

Russia's liberal press reacted cynically to the news, with the respected daily Vedomosti writing that the only way for a change of leadership in Russia would be street protests like in the Arab Spring.

"The swap by Putin and Medvedev does not provide the slightest hint of a readiness to solve long term problems," it wrote. "The tandem leaves no other option for a change of ruler other than the Tunisian-Egyptian path."

Yet the announcement sparked no mass protests in Russia's tightly controlled society with the most significant gathering a rally by 300 supporters of opposition parties in Moscow on Sunday afternoon.

Emphasising an atmosphere of business as usual, Putin on Monday chaired a routine government meeting on state services in which there was not the slightest mention of the weekend's political drama.

Meanwhile, the mass-circulation dailies that form the bulk of Russia's newspaper diet showed nothing but satisfaction. "This is how we will be victorious!" screamed the tabloid Tvoi Den.

Russia's stock markets opened flat, showing no sign of panic at the thought of another term of strongman rule by Putin despite concerns among some analysts over the exit of the highly respected Kudrin.

"We believe Medvedev and Putin, as prime minister and president, could work very well together, providing much-needed stability and continuing the reform agenda championed by Medvedev for improving the Russian investment climate," said Ovanes Oganisian of Renaissance Capital in a note to clients.

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