|Gorbachev, at left in this file photo from 2005, says he would not run for president if he were in Putin's place [Reuters]
Russian elder statesman Mikhail Gorbachev has said Vladimir Putin, the prime minister, should not stand again for the presidency amid speculation he is planning a return to the Kremlin in 2012.
In comments published on Wednesday on the former Soviet leader’s 80th birthday, Gorbachev told Russia’s Argumenty i Fakty magazine that Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, the current president, needed to understand "their time is limited".
Putin served two terms as president between 1999 and 2008 before being appointed prime minister by Medvedev, his successor and political ally.
While Russia’s constitution forbids a leader from serving more than two consecutive terms, Putin could stand again in next year’s presidential election.
But Gorbachev, who was the Soviet leader from 1985 until the collapse of the Communist government in 1991, said: “Vladimir Putin has already served two terms, and one more as prime minister. I would not run for president if I were in his place… People ... do not want to be a mass, a flock led for decades by the same shepherds."
Putin has been accused of rolling back the advances towards democracy and human rights begun under Gorbachev and continued in the 1990s.
In comments last month, Gorbachev said Putin’s United Russia party reminded him of the Communist Party and described Russian democracy as an "imitation".
“We have everything - a parliament, courts, a president and a prime minister, but these all are to a larger extent an imitation,” Gorbachev said.
Last year, the Nobel Peace Prize winner lent his support to a new political movement called Civic Dialogue, headed by prominent human-rights defendants and other public figures.
Gorbachev was feted in the West during the final days of the Cold War for his ”perestroika” and “glasnost” programmes of economic and political reform. He stepped down at the end of 1991, following the failure of a hardline coup to depose him as the Soviet Union broke apart.
But Gorbachev has been a marginalised figure in Russia since leaving political office, with many holding him responsible for the political and economic upheavals which followed the collapse of the communist system.