Russia decorates Gorbachev with highest honour
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev decorated Mikhail Gorbachev with the highest state honour on Wednesday in a rare recognition for the last Soviet leader, who is often ignored at home.
Medvedev opened his suburban Moscow residence to Gorbachev on his 80th birthday, exchanging jokes with the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize winner and awarding him a tsarist-era medal that now serves as Russia's top state honour.
Many Russians refuse to forgive Gorbachev for overseeing the demise of the Soviet empire and Medvedev conceded that his role in history "can be assessed in different ways."
But inviting Gorbachev to a spread of sweets and champagne, Medvedev said the Andrei Pervozvanny order, which was only restored in 1998, was "the proper recognition of your enormous work as head of state."
"You headed our country in a very difficult, dramatic period," Medvedev said, adding that the decoration was a "symbol of the state's respect" for his work.
Gorbachev also received rare words of praise from Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the former president and current de-facto leader, who once famously called the Soviet Union's collapse one of the greatest misfortunes of history.
Putin sent Gorbachev a personal telegram calling him "one of the eminent statesmen of modernity who made a telling impact on the course of world history and did much to strengthen the authority of Russia."
The congratulations marked a rare personal victory for Gorbachev, who has had cool relations with the current authorities and expressed increasing bitterness over the way his contribution to history is assessed at home.
Moscow's last Communist leader is known internationally as the man whose perestroika and glasnost reforms altered the course of history by burying the Soviet Union and liberating Eastern Europe.
But at home, he is largely despised for letting go of an empire and reducing Russia to a secondary role on the world stage.
Gorbachev has admitted to being hurt by the criticism and he has used the unprecedented media attention accompanying his birthday to criticise the more recent course Russia has taken -- particularly under Putin.
He used one interview Wednesday to urge Putin against running for another term as president and to warn of the dangers of Arab-style social revolt.
"How many times have they promised people that they will loosen the screws?" Gorbachev asked in reference to the Russian authorities.
He said the "vertical of power" that the Kremlin has built to oversee the country's politics and economics "has rotted to its core" and issued a direct challenge to Putin to step aside.
"Vladimir Vladimirovich has already served two terms (as president) and another as prime minister. If I were him, I would not run for president," Gorbachev told the Argumenty i Fakty weekly.
Putin and his presidential successor Dmitry Medvedev have said on repeated occasions that they will decide in private which of them will run -- and almost certainly win -- in selections scheduled one year from now.
Gorbachev has previously called such a private selection process "shameful" and accused the pair of acting "as if society, constitution, elections, did not exist".
Wednesday's wave of attention seems remarkable considering the increasing domestic isolation Gorbachev has found himself in since failing to revive his political career in the mid-1990s.
An opinion poll released this week showed that Gorbachev "irritates" fewer Russians today than he did a decade ago.
Only five percent of respondents said they found him "revolting" -- an alternative answer that itself underscored what the pollsters expected to find in their study.
But the number of people who said they felt indifferent to Gorbachev rose from 35 percent in 2001 to 47 percent today.
© 2011 AFP