Leading Article: The trials of Mr Gorbachev

IN THE United States, former presidents are given large pensions, suites of offices and a staff of secretaries and researchers a dozen or more strong. They are allowed to oversee the creation of grandiose libraries to house their official papers. In Britain, ex-prime ministers are treated less generously. But at least they are given the offer of a peerage and the platform that goes with it. Perks are not withheld, even from disgraced leaders such as Richard Nixon, or those like Baroness Thatcher who have fallen out of fashion and are deemed to be disloyal and a calculated source of embarrassment to their heirs.

In Russia, things are less clear cut. President Boris Yeltsin initially dealt generously with Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, when his job disappeared at the end of last year. But now the Russian leader is tightening the screws on his increasingly critical predecessor. Mr Gorbachev has lost his dacha, his Zil limousine and his access to the VIP lounge at Moscow airport. The astonishingly large, state-funded Gorbachev Foundation - housed in what is said to be a former terrorist training centre - has been severely trimmed, and the last general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union has been told that, for the present, he may not travel abroad.

Moreover, Mr Gorbachev has been fined, so far only a symbolic sum, for continuing contempt of court. He is refusing to appear before the Constitutional Court, which is investigating the legality of the Russian decree banning the party after last year's abortive coup. At the same time, the court is looking into the legality of the party's behaviour in the final months of the Gorbachev era. It is not clear whether the court (a new creation) has the authority to order the former leader's detention and imprisonment, but Mr Gorbachev has not yet purged his contempt by ending his defiance. Instead he has dismissed the hearings as 'a farce'.

Mr Yeltsin is on the horns of a dilemma. The last leader of the Soviet Union commands little respect, and less affection, in Russia, but in the West his reputation as a courageous reformer and a liberal who attempted to bring the Soviet Union under the rule of law remains substantial. President Francois Mitterrand has already expressed concern for Mr Gorbachev and sent him a message of support. How long will it be before Lady Thatcher and Ronald Reagan follow his example?

Mr Gorbachev's constant sniping at the new administration can do Mr Yeltsin no harm at home. But such behaviour hurts the Russian president's pride and, more important, undermines his international standing at a crucial time. Mr Gorbachev's judgements are still treated with considerable respect abroad. No wonder Mr Yeltsin is tempted to act vindictively. He would, however, be wise to resist the temptation. Mr Gorbachev poses no domestic threat because he has no significant following, while the international reaction to any further humiliation of him would be negative. As for the West, it is time to recognise that, for all his charm and courage, Mr Gorbachev's criticisms of the Yeltsin reforms are opportunistic and destructive, and his defiance of the Constitutional Court comes ill from a man supposedly dedicated to the creation of a state ruled by law.