Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet president and Nobel Peace Prize winner, said yesterday he would stand as a candidate in Russia's presidential election in June.
Mr Gorbachev, who is 65 today, made the announcement at a news conference in Moscow at which he portrayed himself as a centrist alternative to President Boris Yeltsin and to the leading challenger, Gennady Zyuganov of the Communist Party.
Recent opinion polls suggest Mr Gorbachev has almost no hope of winning the presidency. Whereas Mr Zyuganov consistently scores 20 per cent or more in the polls, and Mr Yeltsin scores about 10 per cent, Mr Gorbachev's popularity rating is barely 1 per cent.
"His time is past," said Sergei Shakhrai, a former minister in Mr Yeltsin's government. "Intellectuals and the West recognise his merits, but that's not enough to win the election."
Mr Gorbachev said he hoped to unite "all democratic forces" behind his candidacy, but it is difficult to see where his support might come from.
Most ordinary voters, in so far as they think of him at all, appear to hold him responsible for the political chaos and economic slump that turned their lives upside down in the late Soviet period.
Nor does he command much sympathy in Russian political circles. Reformists blame him for refusing, when he was president, to make a decisive break with Communism and the principle of a united Soviet state, while Communists and nationalists despise him as a traitor.
By throwing his hat into the ring, Mr Gorbachev seems to be calculating that he may at least succeed in disrupting the election campaign of Mr Yeltsin, his bitter rival. The two men have been at odds since 1987, when Mr Gorbachev forced Mr Yeltsin's dismissal from the inner Soviet leadership.
Mr Yeltsin secured his revenge by becoming the champion of the democratic opposition, winning the Russian presidency in June 1991 and organising the dissolution of the Soviet Union after the failed August hardline coup. Mr Gorbachev, who is not a member of a political party, needs 1 million signatures of support by 16 April to be registered as a candidate in the 16 June election.