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Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, marks 90th birthday on Zoom

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, was set to throw a Zoom party in quarantine to celebrate his 90th birthday on Tuesday, as President Vladimir Putin hailed him as an “outstanding statesman” who influenced the course of history.

FILE PHOTO: Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev addresses the audience after the Russian premiere of the documentary film "Meeting Gorbachev" in Moscow, Russia November 8, 2018. REUTERS/Tatyana Makeyeva

Gorbachev, who championed arms control and democracy-oriented reforms as Soviet leader in the 1980s, is widely credited with helping end the Cold War.

His critics in Russia blame him for what they regard as the unnecessary and painful breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Gorbachev has been in quarantine in hospital for months as a precaution during the coronavirus pandemic, and will host a virtual party with close friends and staff from his foundation, Gorbachev’s spokesman Vladimir Polyakov said.

“We’ll raise our glasses,” he said. “We’ll gather here and he’ll be there and we’ll see each other and make toasts.”

Polyakov said messages of congratulations had rolled in from world leaders, including British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, U.S. President Joe Biden and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Putin, who has lamented the Soviet breakup, sent Gorbachev a congratulatory telegram, which was published on the Kremlin website.

“You rightfully belong to the galaxy of bright, extraordinary people, outstanding statesmen of our time who have had a significant influence on the course of domestic and world history,” said Putin.

Gorbachev’s legacy has been partially unpicked in recent years as Moscow and Washington’s ties retreated to post-Cold War lows, a process that sped the demise of a treaty that banned the two nations from deploying land-based ballistic missiles with certain ranges.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and rows over sanctions, alleged political meddling, and geopolitics have further soured U.S.-Russia ties.

Gorbachev has warned against a return to the Cold War and urged Moscow and Washington to keep talking to each other, regardless of their differences.

Latvia’s Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics tweeted that Latvians were grateful to Gorbachev.

“His perestroika and (glasnost reforms) were intended to save the Soviet Union, instead they sped up the collapse of the Communist empire paving the way to freedom for millions,” he wrote.

At a play about his life staged in Moscow last month, many spectators spoke highly of Gorbachev.

“He is a man of his age. He changed our country. He is a daring man,” said Jamila Iskandera.

But on Moscow’s streets, many took a harsher view.

“He’s a windbag ... He was not prepared to guide such a big and great state,” said Vyacheslav Sokolov.

“I was born in the Soviet Union, and I think it was a big mistake to ruin the Soviet Union,” said Irina Baychenko, another Muscovite.

Reporting by Tom Balmforth; editing by Andrew Osborn and Mike Collett-White

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