Former Soviet Leader Gorbachev Slams Russian Political Leaders

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev is harshly criticizing Russia's political system, saying that the nation's leaders have steadily rolled back the democratic achievements of his rule.

Gorbachev accused Russia's current government of trying to consolidate its grip on power and stifle opposition voices, but avoided specific mention of President Dmitry Medvedev or his predecessor Vladimir Putin, who is now prime minister.

"We have seen the step-by-step monopolization of political activities," Gorbachev said at a conference marking the 20th anniversary of the first democratically elected Soviet parliament.

The Congress of People's Deputies, which convened in May 1989, served as the main arena for fierce political battles between supporters and enemies of Gorbachev's reforms. Live broadcasts of its stormy sessions attracted public attention, contrasting sharply with sedate meetings of today's Kremlin-controlled parliament.

Gorbachev says Russia's tightly orchestrated politics now evoke the Soviet era, when lists of parliament members were compiled by the Communist Party leadership for rubber-stamp elections.

"The electoral system has been revised to serve the interests of a single party, the interests of those who are now at the helm," he said. "Step by step, we have been going back to the past."

While Gorbachev carefully criticized the main pro-Kremlin United Russia party for shunning political debate, he avoided any personal criticism of Putin and Medvedev.

His remarks echoed a recent statement by Medvedev, who scolded United Russia for its refusal to debate rivals in December 2007 parliamentary elections. The party has even faced criticism from Putin himself, who backed it in the elections and became its leader last year but has never actually joined.

Medvedev's election in March 2008 followed years of tightening Kremlin control over Russia's political scene during Putin's tenure. During his eight-year rule, Putin abolished popular elections of provincial governors and initiated other electoral changes that further strengthened the Kremlin's dominance. He also oversaw state takeover of independent television networks and growing state control over key industries.

Medvedev has not diverged significantly from Putin's course, but has sought to cast himself as a more conciliatory leader. He has criticized Russia's "legal nihilism" and called for greater respect for the law.

Some Russian liberals hope that Medvedev may take a more independent stance as economy worsens, but other Kremlin critics expect him to continue toeing the line drawn by his mentor.