'Only Great Britain can live without a written constitution,' he joked in welcoming the fact that Russia was being offered a new Basic Law with, he said, particularly impressive clauses defending human rights. But, since President Boris Yeltsin used force to disband the old Soviet parliament in October, a draft produced earlier this year had been changed considerably to give more power to the executive and less influence to the legislature and regions.
'Okay, let that be,' said Mr Gorbachev, 'but we need to give people a chance to really consider the text. Instead an attempt is being made to force the pace, to take advantage of the situation, to railroad the constitution through and have it adopted in the name of the people.'
Mr Yeltsin has called a referendum on the constitution for 12 December, the same day elections to a new parliament are to be held. The President, apparently fearing Russia will plunge into further political chaos if the text is rejected, has told the 13 parties campaigning for the elections they must stick to promoting their programmes and not create controversy over the constitution.
Mr Gorbachev pounced on that instruction as evidence to support his view that the coming Russian elections cannot possibly be free and fair in the present tense atmosphere. ' 'Don't mess with the constitution', that's what he (Mr Yeltsin) said. What an amazing democracy we have] So much for free elections]' The former Kremlin leader proposed that the referendum should go ahead, but that afterwards the new Federal Assembly (parliament) should do 'finishing work' to the text.
Last night the government asked the electoral commission to bar the Communist and centrist parties from the election because of their opposition to the draft constitution.
Mr Gorbachev denies that he is motivated by hurt pride. But since Mr Yeltsin replaced him on the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the former president has found few kind words to say about his successor. Yesterday, without actually attacking Mr Yeltsin by name, he criticised his attempts to transform Russia into a capitalist country. He defined Bolshevism as 'any kind of reform that forces the pace and fails to take into account the needs of the people', and then went on to say: 'Only Bolsheviks can push the country with cowboy methods. It is another kind of collectivisation. I do see a real danger of a revival of Bolshevism in the guise of new democracy. And that could bury reforms and discredit democracy.'
Mr Gorbachev said he could not recommend the radical economist Yegor Gaidar and other pro-Yeltsin reformers who are leading the electoral bloc 'Russia's Choice'. Rather, he urged voters to consider a group led by another reform economist, Grigory Yavlinsky, the centrist Civic Union and the Democratic Party of Russia, headed by a former moderate Communist, Nikolai Travkin, and a nationalist film-maker, Vyacheslav Govorukhin.
Mr Gorbachev is not standing for election but has let it be known that he would not be averse to another term as president if the people called him back. He may have to wait a long time. Many Russians have forgotten the freedom which the father of glasnost and perestroika gave them, and think only of the economic chaos that he also bequeathed. In Russia, Mikhail Gorbachev gets fewer cheers than he can expect in Britain.
The man in charge of organising the constitutional referendum has called for President Yeltsin's draft to be approved, Reuter reports.
Nikolai Ryabov, chairman of the Central Electoral Commission, said: 'I express the hope that all of us will make the right choice in favour of the constitution.'
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