Mikhail Gorbachev denounces Putin's 'attack on rights'

By Steve Rosenberg
BBC News, Moscow

Media caption,

Mr Gorbachev said Putin's entourage was full of "corrupt officials"

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has denounced laws passed in Russia as an "attack on the rights of citizens".

In an interview with the BBC he called on President Vladimir Putin "not to be afraid of his own people".

Mr Gorbachev also criticised Mr Putin's inner circle, saying it was full of "thieves and corrupt officials".

The laws include fines for organising unsanctioned protests, stiffer libel penalties, a wider definition of treason and restrictions on websites.

In January, Human Rights Watch accused President Putin of unleashing "the worst political crackdown in Russia's post-Soviet history" since returning to the Kremlin for a third term in May 2012.

The group also said he had overseen "the swift reversal of former President Dmitry Medvedev's few, timid advances on political freedoms".

A number of opposition leaders have been arrested since anti-government protests began to be staged in Moscow and other big cities following disputed parliamentary elections in December 2011.

'Soured' relations

Mr Gorbachev, who is 82 and in poor health, is still determined to speak his mind about what is happening in his country.

He said he was "astonished" by the number of controversial laws passed in Russia since Mr Putin's return to the presidency.

"The common thread running through all of them is an attack on the rights of citizens. For goodness sake, you shouldn't be afraid of your own people," he told the BBC.

"What people want and expect their president to do is to restore an open, direct dialogue with them. He shouldn't take offence at this.

"He should concentrate on trying to drag Russia out of the difficult situation that she is in."

Mr Gorbachev said he had supported Mr Putin during his first term in office, but relations had since "soured".

The two men rarely speak and have had no direct meetings for more than a year.

"I've criticised him a lot in public. He sometimes loses his temper. Once he said that 'Gorbachev's tongue should be cut short'.

"I get the feeling he's very tense and worried. Not everything is going well. I think he should change his style and make adjustments to the regime."

Despite the criticism, Mr Gorbachev believes Mr Putin's entourage is effective at keeping him in power and reducing the risk of a coup or rebellion.

"Putin's entourage is the right one for him. He selected it and it works the way he wants it to," he said.

"Even the inner circle, those by his side, there are so many thieves and corrupt officials there. If things don't change, Russia will continue to drift like a piece of ice in the Arctic Ocean."

Stalin comparison

Mr Gorbachev, however, is not immune from criticism.

Many Russians blame him for the collapse of the Soviet regime as a superpower.

But more than 20 years after the fall of the USSR, Mr Gorbachev refuses to take the blame.

"I'm often accused of of giving away Central and Eastern Europe. But who did I give it to? I gave Poland, for example, back to the Poles. Who else does it belong to?"

Last year, an opinion poll posed the question: Under whose rule did Russia experience mostly positive development.

Vladimir Putin came top, Mikhail Gorbachev came bottom, below Joseph Stalin.

Mr Gorbachev, though, feels that attitudes are changing.

"First of all, my new book is a total sell-out; then there are all the letters I'm getting from people. They write: 'Why are we searching for heroes when we have Gorbachev who opened up so many new opportunities for us and stood firm, no matter how much pressure he came under.'

"I have a feeling that the young generation today, which is cultured and educated, is changing the whole picture."