Russia decorates Gorbachev on 80th birthday

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Mikhail Gorbachev received Russia's top state honour on his 80th birthday Wednesday, in a rare tribute to a man for long marginalised and even despised at home for helping bury the Soviet empire.

The last Soviet leader was received by President Dmitry Medvedev at his suburban Moscow residence and sent a personal greeting by Vladimir Putin -- one of Gorbachev's greatest critics and the object of his most recent barbs.

Gorbachev seemed flabbergasted by the sudden burst of attention, awkwardly interrupting Medvedev on several occasions and making self-depreciating jokes about both his troubled health and growing age.

"My heart is just beating" with excitement, Gorbachev said at one stage.

But Medvedev seemed measured in his praise, sitting cross-legged opposite Gorbachev and observing in a stern voice that the last Soviet leader's role in history "can be assessed in different ways."

Carefully measuring his words, Medvedev called the pre-revolutionary Andrei Pervozvanny award, which was only restored in 1998, the "proper recognition of your enormous work as head of state.

"You really did head our country in a very difficult, dramatic period. And we all remember that," adding that the decoration was a "symbol of the state's respect" for his work.

The Russian president also gave Gorbachev the works of Count Witte, a late tsarist-era minister who championed social reforms, and invited him to a spread of sweets and champagne.

Gorbachev also received rare words of praise from Putin, the former president and current de facto leader who once famously called the Soviet Union's collapse the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the 20th century.

Putin called Gorbachev "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 boost 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 liberating Eastern Europe and spelling a peaceful end to the Cold War.

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 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 in elections scheduled one year from now.

"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.

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

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