Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Green Cross’ Gorbachev Rebukes Putin...

MOSCOW — Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the final leader of the Soviet Union, sharply criticized the state of Russia’s electoral system in remarks published Monday and called for extensive reforms to a system that has secured power for President Vladimir V. Putin and the Kremlin’s inner circle.

“Something is wrong with our elections, and our electoral system needs a major adjustment,” the former Soviet leader said.

The remarks, made in a telephone interview on Sunday but held for a day by the Interfax news wire service, followed the Russian government’s rejection of the only serious opposition candidate in the March 2 presidential election.

The timing was pointed and provocative, and the remarks were the most vocal criticism to date by a prominent Russian political figure of the state of the country’s politics as Mr. Putin prepares to pass power to a chosen successor. They were ignored by Russian television news broadcasts, which are controlled by the Kremlin. The opposition candidate, former Prime Minister Mikhail M. Kasyanov, was denied a place on the ballot on Sunday by the Central Election Commission, which said 13 percent of the more than two million signatures submitted with his registration documents were invalid.

Mr. Kasyanov has said that the signatures are valid and that the Kremlin ordered the commission to block his candidacy as a means of ensuring the election of Dmitri A. Medvedev, a first deputy prime minister and the candidate selected by Mr. Putin.

Mr. Kasyanov’s campaign had previously said that his supporters had been harassed and bullied by Russian authorities, who threatened them with incarceration or dismissal from the jobs.

Mr. Gorbachev’s remarks did not address Mr. Kasyanov directly, although Mr. Gorbachev’s aide Pavel Palazhchenko said they had been in response to a journalist’s question about the end of the Kasyanov candidacy.

Mr. Palazhchenko, in a telephone interview from London, where Mr. Gorbachev is traveling, also said Interfax had called the former Soviet leader to confirm the accuracy of his quotations before publishing them.

Mr. Gorbachev, in the published statements, said the election’s result was “predictable from the outset” and “predetermined by the enormous role that Vladimir Putin played.”

Mr. Putin, who under Russian law cannot serve a third term, has said he will serve as prime minister under Mr. Medvedev — a decision that means he will not necessarily be yielding power.

Mr. Gorbachev has often been publicly supportive of Mr. Putin, and credited him with undoing much of the disorder of the 1990s under President Boris N. Yeltsin, a bitter rival of Mr. Gorbachev’s.

But he has also taken independent positions, including supporting Novaya Gazeta, an independent newspaper that fiercely criticizes Russian officials and has not spared Mr. Putin.

Mr. Gorbachev has said investigative journalism and criticism of officials are essential to the country’s health. He has also previously denounced the state of elections here. His latest remarks put him squarely on record opposing the administrative and electoral means by which Mr. Putin has ensured that his circle will remain in power, and calling for more strict civilian control over Russia’s elections.

Among the changes Mr. Gorbachev recommended was the end of exclusively party-list elections for Parliament, which prevent individual candidates from running for the legislature and keep the assignment of seats in the hands of party leaders. United Russia, the largest party, is controlled by Mr. Putin.

Mr. Gorbachev also suggested a return to direct public elections for governors; the selection of governors now rests with the president, giving citizens no vote.

“The issue concerning governors’ elections should also be raised,” he said, “so that people are able to take a more active part in social and political life.”