MOSCOW — Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on Wednesday criticized the government for taking Russia backward and said that the nation needs free elections and fresh leadership.
Gorbachev was speaking ahead of the 20th anniversary of Aug. 19, 1991, hardline coup that briefly ousted him and precipitated the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Gorbachev criticized the United Russia party led by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, which he described as a bad copy of the Soviet Communist Party.
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He said Russia needs to restore direct elections of governors and single-ballot elections to the parliament, which were abolished during Putin's presidency.
"Honest elections are needed: single-ballot elections, elections of governors," Gorbachev said. "People must have a feeling that something depends on them."
He dismissed the Popular Front, an umbrella group of public organizations, professional associations and unions created with Putin's blessing.
"They invent some unnecessary groups, some fronts," Gorbachev said, adding that government spin doctors might just as well invent something like "10 Putin Strikes" — a sardonic reference to "10 Stalin Strikes," a term used by Soviet propaganda to describe the Red Army's offensives during World War II.
The front's creation has been seen as an attempt by Putin to strengthen his support base ahead of parliamentary elections in December and a presidential vote in March.
Putin, who shifted into the prime minister's job in 2008 because of a two-term constitutional limit, is widely expected to reclaim the presidency.
Gorbachev avoided personal criticism of Putin, saying that he deserves credit for stabilizing the country after the economic meltdown and chaos of the first post-Soviet decade. A the same time, he harshly criticized the system of government created by Putin, saying that manipulations of elections had pushed the country back.
"There must be a change in the upper layer of government," he said.
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