MOSCOW Russia faces instability and its future is in question if it fails to carry out political reforms and reduce its dependence on energy exports, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev said in an article published on Wednesday.
His call for change was part of a growing chorus of warnings from worried intellectuals as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev prepare to announce which of them will run in a presidential election next year.
In biting criticism of Russia's development since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 following reforms he instigated, Gorbachev portrayed Russia as having a brittle and corrupt political system that could soon face turmoil.
He said there was a feeling of impending doom among ordinary Russians as well as business and political leaders but Russia's leadership seemed obsessed with cosmetic tinkering rather than real reform.
"It is difficult to get away from the feeling that the Russian authorities have neither the political will nor the readiness to find a real way out," Gorbachev, 80, said in an article published in two Russian newspapers.
"They (the authorities) are limited to cosmetic measures and more often to resounding declarations and the imitation of reform: apparently powerful personal and corporate interests depend on the preservation of the status quo."
The remarks by Gorbachev, who did not mention Putin or Medvedev, followed an interview this week in which former Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov dismissed the political system as a charade.
Billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov also criticized the Kremlin last week, accusing is chief political strategist of interfering in party politics after he quit as leader of the pro-business Right Cause party.
Gorbachev has urged Putin not to run in the presidential election next March.
He did not specifically do so again in his article, but he dismissed the economic boom during Putin's 2000-2008 presidency as a period where excessive dependence on energy exports created "the illusion of stability and prosperity."
The father of "perestroika" (restructuring) and "glasnost" (openness) said Russia was returning to the era of Leonid Brezhnev, whose 1964-1982 rule is widely portrayed as an era of stagnation when strong oil sales masked economic decline.
But Gorbachev also indicated he was unimpressed with Medvedev, who has not implemented the far-reaching reforms he promised after being steered into the Kremlin by Putin in 2008.
"The unwillingness to start reform or the desire to have partial change is often explained by the fear of losing power and the desire to prevent a new collapse of Russia," he said.
"But it is the very absence of change which threatens to provoke instability and put the future of the country in question," said Gorbachev.
He said the president had become a "new Russian monarch."
Reviled by most Russians for allowing the collapse of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev conjured up the image of Pyotr Stolypin, one of the Tsar's last reformist prime ministers before the 1917 revolutions, to call for more radical change.
But he cautioned that the current leadership was unlikely to be able to implement sweeping reform and said that just changing those in power would have little impact.
"A change of power with the preservation of the former system and the same rules of the game would just mean a change of places and the caravan would continue on its path toward the precipice," he said.
(Editing by Janet Lawrence)