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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Gorbachev's Distorted View of Putinism

President Vladimir Putin has an unexpected ally in his current war of words with the United States -- Mikhail Gorbachev, former president of the Soviet Union and architect of perestroika and glasnost, the reform movement that started the democratization process in Russia. Gorbachev maintains that Putin has reconstructed Russia and enabled it to recover from the economic crisis of the 1990s and that he is intent on establishing a democratic society.

Although his standing in his own country has long since dissipated, Gorbachev enjoys a lingering and genuine respect and admiration in the West. Thus, his comments sparked editorials in many Western newspapers and understandably some vitriolic reactions, particularly to his comment that the United States is obsessed with a "victory complex" and that it has embarked on a new era of imperialism.

Of more interest, perhaps, is Gorbachev's perception of the recent history of his own country, which can be summarized as follows: An era of reform began with his own administration in 1985, and through his policy of perestroika and glasnost, the world observed the onset of democratic reforms, openness and an end to the Cold War.

In the 1990s, however, following the end of the U.S.S.R. and the onset of the presidency of Boris Yeltsin, Russia experienced a sharp economic downturn with the impoverishment of the people, widespread corruption and the uncontrolled power of very rich oligarchs, who were interested in enriching themselves rather than the people.

Putin has, in Gorbachev's view, reversed these trends, thus continuing his goals, albeit by using more arbitrary methods. Therefore, Putin's achievements far outweigh his flaws and there is no justification for the foreign media to adopt such a negative stance toward his government. Putin will leave office in 2008, as mandated by the Constitution, but he will continue to play an important role in the nation's political and economic affairs as well as in its foreign policy.

What is wrong with this picture?

It is true that Gorbachev introduced reforms, but they were introduced haphazardly and without any clear forethought. In 1991, Gorbachev's opponents tried to carried out a coup, but they were thwarted by popular resistance led by Yeltsin, the brash reformer best known at that time for throwing away his Communist Party membership card and opposing the Soviet nomenklatura. Unlike Gorbachev, Yeltsin subjected himself to a national election in the then-Russian Republic of the U.S.S.R. And it was Yeltsin, in his capacity as the new president of the post-Soviet Russian Federation, who authorized the shock therapy that transformed the country from a command economy to a market-oriented one.

Admittedly, the situation deteriorated subsequently with the rise of oligarchs such as Boris Berezovsky, Vladimir Gusinsky and others, who gained their wealth as a result of the reckless and unwarranted sale of key state assets at cut-rate prices. Corruption became an uncontrollable problem, and Yeltsin himself spent long periods incapacitated by health problems. Moreover, in 1998, Russia experienced a financial crisis so severe that it almost led to a collapse of the economy.

Against the background of the Yeltsin era, Putin certainly deserves some praise. He has brought order to society, curbed the outflow of capital and ended the reign of unpopular oligarchs. He has brought about state ownership over key companies such as Gazprom, which also controls a hefty share of Russian oil output. To be sure, he has been blessed with remarkably good fortune, particularly in the rise in world prices for oil and gas, over which he had no control.

Gorbachev's version of events chooses to ignore some key aspects of Putin's two terms in office, including the renewal of the war in Chechnya and the growing control over the media. Ironically, one exception to that comment is Gorbachev's own newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, whose most prominent journalist and Putin critic, Anna Politkovskaya, was assassinated in October.

Moreover, Gorbachev ignored the fact that Putin has reduced the State Duma to little more than a talking shop (and it is highly unlikely that any real opposition faction will emerge). His acolytes in United Russia won 222 out of the 450 seats in the 2003 Duma elections, and, together with several minor parties, make up a firm majority. He has also appointed governors, ending gubernatorial elections three years ago.

The reduction of the power of the oligarchs, while popular, is clearly politically motivated. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former CEO of Yukos, has served an eight-year sentence for fraud in a maximum-security prison in Krasnokamensk, a remote and toxic-ridden town in the Chita region (in December, Khodorkovsky was transferred to a detention center to Chita in connection with the new charges brought against him.)

Khodorkovsky was singled out for the harshest treatment because of his political ambitions. Putin has stronger grounds for demanding the extradition from Britain of Boris Berezovsky, who has advocated the violent overthrow of the government. But other oligarchs have been left untouched, either because they have no political ambitions or because they have declared their loyalty to the Putin government.

On several occasions, relations with neighbors have been strained. Tiny Estonia suffered a cyberattack on its government networks following the dismantling of a Soviet-era statue commemorating World War II victims. And Putin's overt backing of the flawed presidential campaign of Ukraine Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych sparked the Orange Revolution in 2004.

Lastly, the state-run Gazprom claims to apply the laws of the market, but uses draconian business tactics and arbitrary pricing. Thus, Belarus pays less for gas than Ukraine, which in turn pays less than Georgia, whose government has been hostile toward Moscow.

Putin has indeed led Russia's recovery, restored national pride, and raised the country to the level of a powerful regional power. But he has not used democratic methods, his security forces enjoy vast powers, and his own authority is now greater than that enjoyed by his admirer Gorbachev. The latter's depiction of the Putin government seems as distorted as his memory of his own years in office.

David R. Marples, professor of Russian history at the University of Alberta, Canada, is the author of twelve books, including "The Collapse of the Soviet Union, 1985-1991."