Sunday, October 21, 2007

Current Events: Russia

by Olga Nedbayeva Sat Oct 20, 7:00 AM ET

MOSCOW (AFP) - Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev founded a new political movement on Saturday aimed at fighting democratic abuses in Russia, but not at challenging President Vladimir Putin's rule.

"We are putting our hopes in the efforts that Putin is making" to reform Russia, Gorbachev told some 200 delegates at the founding congress of the Union of Social-Democrats in central Moscow.

But Gorbachev, 76, who will lead the movement, also highlighted "negative tendencies," including a lack of real political debate, pressure being put on non-governmental groups and high levels of corruption.

"We are fighting for power, but only for power over people's minds," said Gorbachev.

His new movement is not a political party and will therefore not take part in parliamentary elections in December.

United Russia, the dominant party in the Russian parliament, is set for a landslide victory in the elections after Putin announced earlier this month that he would run as its top candidate.

The deadline for parties to register for the elections passed on October 17.

A statement issued by the movement said that "the potential for free democratic choice and political competition is being limited.... This is why social-democrats are uniting to fight for the values of freedom and fairness."

Gorbachev was the last general secretary of the Communist Party and is generally unpopular in Russia as he is associated with a period of political upheaval and economic collapse.

After his attempts at reforming Communism fell through and the Soviet Union broke apart in 1991, he became head of the Russian Social-Democratic Party, which failed to win any seats in the 2003 parliamentary elections.

He has received numerous awards in the West and is a frequent speaker at international events. He has a more visible public role in Russia as head of the Gorbachev Foundation, which funds charity and education.

In his speech on Thursday, Gorbachev praised Putin for not changing the country's constitution to allow himself to run for a third consecutive term, when his period in office runs out next year.

"The president was under pressure and the fact that he did not give in to it is important from the point of view of democracy," Gorbachev said, referring to calls for Putin to change the constitution.

Putin, who came to power in 2000, remains very popular in Russia as he is credited with the country's economic revival and with boosting Russia's role in world affairs.

Russians are to elect a new president in March 2008 but there is still uncertainty about what role Putin could play in Russia's political future and who his favoured successor might be.