RUSSIA under prime minister Vladimir Putin is a sham democracy, Mikhail Gorbachev has said in his harshest criticism yet of the ruling regime.

“We have everything – a parliament, courts, a president, a prime minister and so on. But it’s more of an imitation,” the last president of the Soviet Union said.

Gorbachev, who oversaw the softening of the communist system and subsequent dissolution of the Soviet Union, has become increasingly critical of the modern Russian state, accusing its leaders of rolling back the democratic reforms of the 1990s.

Speaking at a press conference ahead of his 80th birthday, Gorbachev criticised Putin for manipulating elections.

In response to the prime minister and former president’s comments that he and his protégé, President Dmitry Medvedev, would decide between them who would run for office in March 2012, Gorbachev said: “It’s not Putin’s business. It must be decided by the nation in elections.”

He called Putin’s statements a sign of “incredible conceit”.

Asked how he thought the regime approached human rights, Gorbachev said: “There’s a problem there. It’s a sign of the state of our democracy.” He was echoing statements made by Navi Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights, during a visit to Russia last week.

Gorbachev said United Russia, the ruling party founded with the sole goal of supporting Putin’s leadership, was a throwback.

“United Russia reminds me of the worst copy of the Communist party,” he said. “We have institutions but they don’t work. We have laws but they must be enforced.”

Its stranglehold over political life would eventually backfire. “The monopoly ends in rotting and hampers the development of democratic processes.”

Gobachev said he did not like how Putin and Medvedev were behaving. “It’s a shame that our modern leaders aren’t very modern,” he said.

Gorbachev now runs a charity foundation that will hold a gala at the Royal Albert Hall in London on 30 March to mark his birthday. He co-owns the country’s leading opposition newspaper, Novaya Gazeta.

Held up in the west as a hero for his softening of the Soviet system and eventual acceptance of its fall, Gorbachev remains widely despised inside Russia, where he is seen as a traitor who allowed the empire to crumble and ushered in a period of great uncertainty. Over the years he has aligned himself with the cause of Russia’s sidelined liberals.

On Monday, Gorbachev called the regime’s campaign against jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky politically motivated. “Politics shouldn’t have been involved in [the case], but they were,” he said.

He noted the case of Natalya Vasilieva, a court clerk who worked on the Khodorkovsky trial and broke ranks to publicly announce that the judge had been pressured throughout and had a verdict and sentence pushed on him.

“I fully believe her,” Gorbachev said. “People can’t stand it anymore – she saw what was happening with her own eyes.”

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