Gorbachev Says State Bailing Out the Rich

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev accused the government on Friday of bailing out billionaires at taxpayers' expense in a letter co-signed by four businessmen and economists.

Gorbachev has until now been supportive of the Kremlin, and by speaking out he has joined a small but growing chorus of influential Russians who say the government's tight control of the economy and politics is making the slowdown worse.

"The Russian authorities have turned their back on structural reform and instead satisfied themselves with inventing a mythical model of an 'energy superpower,'" said an open letter whose signatories included Gorbachev.

"Resources are directed not so much at protecting the interests of a majority of citizens as at saving the assets and property of a narrow circle of influential businessmen," said the letter, which was published in Vedomosti.

The other signatories included Vladimir Ryzhkov, a liberal former member of the State Duma; businessman Alexander Lebedev, also a former deputy; and Vladislav Inozemtsev, director of the Moscow-based Center for Post-Industrial Studies.

The letter outlined 15 steps that would ease the burden of the financial crisis for ordinary citizens, but some of the measures would roll back major bailout initiatives for business.

Among the proposed steps, the authors suggested: allowing foreign banks to take Russian assets held as collateral to increase investment down the road; converting companies' foreign debt into sovereign debt through auctions with the participation of foreign lenders; defending the ruble with foreign reserves to cut inflation; and freezing tariff hikes for the country's natural monopolies.

The government offered more than $200 billion in rescue measures for the economy last year, including as much as $50 billion to help some of the country's richest businessman refinance foreign debt through Vneshekonombank.

Though popular in the West, Gorbachev is reviled by many Russians for his role in dismantling the Soviet Union, and he carries little political weight at home.

But his criticism could strike a chord with Russians worried about layoffs and savings that have fallen in value because of the weakening ruble.

The Kremlin is concerned that public anger over the state of the economy could spill over into unrest. Riot police in Vladivostok detained about 100 people last month who were protesting over an increase in duties on imported cars.

Some analysts say President Dmitry Medvedev sees the slowdown as an opportunity to open up the economy and political life and implement long-delayed reforms.

Medvedev has made a public show of unity with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin but last week he scolded the government for reacting too slowly to the crisis.