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Russia Risks Mass Unrest Under Current Regime, Gorbachev Says

Former President of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev
Former President of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev, seen here, said, “When people finally realize that their opinion is ignored and that nothing depends on them, they’ll go out on the street.” Photographer: Jochen Eckel/Bloomberg

Russia’s leadership should start listening to the people or risk mass protests and disorder, said Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union.

“The most dangerous thing is if the tension building up in society suddenly bursts onto the street with such a force that we’ll all be in trouble,” Gorbachev, 79, said in an interview with Moscow-based Snob magazine. “Without modernization of democratic institutions there can’t be any progress.”

Gorbachev failed to prevent the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 after he tried to restructure the communist command economy and liberalize the political climate. While Russians often blame the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize winner for the loss of the country’s superpower status, many Europeans lionize him for letting go of Soviet satellite states without bloodshed.

Gorbachev said his greatest accomplishment as general secretary of the Communist Party in the late 1980s was putting Russia on “the road to freedom.” Russia hasn’t even gone halfway down that road, he told the magazine, owned by billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov.

“The current authorities haven’t become leaders for me yet,” said Gorbachev, who usually avoids criticizing President Dmitry Medvedev, 45, and his predecessor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, 58. Gorbachev said the so-called tandem rule of the two politicians is “legitimate and legal,” though something “unexpected” may happen in the 2012 presidential election, when both men are eligible to run.

“Our government fears its own citizens,” Gorbachev said, warning the patience of Russians with “a swamp of stagnation, indifference and corruption” may eventually snap. “When people finally realize that their opinion is ignored and that nothing depends on them, they’ll go out on the street,” he said.

Andropov ‘Protected Me’

Vladimir Polyakov, a spokesman for the Gorbachev Foundation, confirmed the accuracy of the printed remarks.

Gorbachev said the leader he feels closest to is Yury Andropov, one of his predecessors as Communist Party general secretary who died in 1984.

“He in part protected me, but did it in such a way that I didn’t know anything about it,” Gorbachev said. “We had several very serious conversations that changed my life.”

Rock musician Yury Shevchuk, 53, is “great” for his civic involvement, according to Gorbachev. Putin said he didn’t know the Russian rock legend when he met cultural figures in May at a gathering where Shevchuk challenged the prime minister over the state of democracy in Russia.

“The government on its own can’t deal with the problems we have,” Gorbachev said. The self-proclaimed social democrat said he’s interested in forming a non-partisan movement to help push forward the democratic process in Russia. There isn’t a political forum for discussions and arguments, he said.

Germany, Poland, Bulgaria

While Gorbachev defended his record as the last Soviet leader, he acknowledged that his efforts to reform the Communist Party and overhaul the Soviet Union came too late. Had he succeeded, the Soviet Union could have become a “free democratic country,” he said.

“I’m criticized for giving everything away,” Gorbachev said, referring to domestic critics. “And what did I give away? Germany to the Germans, Poland to the Poles and Bulgaria to the Bulgarians. And who did they belong to?”

Asked what would make him happiest now, Gorbachev said it would be meeting his late wife, Raisa, “on the other side.” She died in 1999 at age 67.

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