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Medvedev declines to back Putin on Soviet collapse

The USSR's collapse caused suffering for its people but whether it was the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the 20th century is a matter for historians, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said.

world Updated: Nov 07, 2009 23:03 IST

The USSR's collapse caused suffering for its people but whether it was the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the 20th century is a matter for historians, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said.

Medvedev's predecessor and strongman Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent who served in Communist East Germany, notoriously used that phrase in a national address in 2005 to describe the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In an interview with Germany's Der Spiegel magazine whose transcript was released by the Kremlin Saturday, Medvedev described the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 as a "great shock" for its people.

"It was a very serious and dramatic event as a result of which the people who had lived in one state found themselves dispersed in several states," he said.

"But to say it was the main geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century or something like that, this is a matter for historians."

Medvedev said that World War II was a "no less serious catastrophe" and "if we talk about the consequences a more terrible tragedy". He described the civil war that followed the 1917 Russian Revolution as another catastrophe.

The president said in the interview that when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 he was a post-graduate student in Saint Petersburg and knew that the changes "would affect the fate of Europe and in the end our country".

But Medvedev held back from praising the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, whose cautious liberalization is hailed in the West for opening the way to the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the Soviet Union.

He said perceptions of Gorbachev were different in Russia as it was during his rule "that it came to the collapse of our state".

"A large number of our people link the end of our state (the USSR) with his work," Medvedev added.

When Medvedev took over the Kremlin from Putin last year, many Russian liberals hoped he would take a softer line on foreign policy and make a clearer break with the Soviet past.

However analysts still struggle to discern clear differences between the two men and most believe that Putin remains Russia's de-facto number one within their ruling tandem.

Medvedev praised his work with Putin, although he added that "every person has his own ideas, style and manner of presenting material".

He said it would be wrong if Russia's tandem looked the same, as was the case in the late 1970s when late Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and his chief ideologue Mikhail Suslov were characterzied by grey coats and identical hats.

"I hope that we do not at any moment start to recall the aged leaders of the politburo who would stand on Lenin's mausoleum in identical coats and hats," Medvedev said.

"It was impossible to see who was Leonid Ilyich (Brezhnev) and who was Mikhail Andreevich (Suslov)," he said.

Russian politics has been awash with speculation Putin could be plotting a return to the Kremlin in 2012 elections when he would be eligible for two consecutive six year terms.

Putin has already vowed he and Medvedev will not compete for the post, a statement which the president said meant the pair "would sit down and discuss who runs in the elections so we do not interfere with each other."

"He did not say that we will determine between ourselves who will be the next president. That would be ridiculous," said Medvedev.

Many political observers expect Putin to seek to return to the Kremlin for another two terms which would see him ruling until 2024.

Earlier this year, Igor Yurgens, a leading economist who heads a think-tank that advises Medvedev, floated the risk of Putin becoming a new Brezhnev if he stayed in power too long.