By NATALIYA VASILYEVA, Associated Press
MOSCOW (AP) — Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has "exhausted" his potential as Russia's leader, Mikhail Gorbachev declared Thursday, saying Putin's inability to change the Kremlin's political system might prompt more massive anti-government protests.
Putin — who became prime minister after serving as Russia's president from 2000 to 2008 — is almost certain to become president again during the March 4 election, despite opposition rallies that have been the largest protests Russia has seen since the 1991 Soviet collapse.
"If he does not overcome himself, change the way things are — and I think it will be difficult for him to do that — then everything will end up on city squares," Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, said at a news conference.
Gorbachev said of Putin: "He won't carry that weight. By now he has exhausted himself."
Hours later, however, Putin came forward with suggestions of how to cut corruption — a constant plague in Russia — and even made amends with businessmen involved in the unpopular 1990s privatization of state enterprises.
Gorbachev recently urged Putin to give up power and annul the results of December's fraud-tainted parliamentary vote, which triggered the anti-Putin rallies. The thousands of protesters also have joined Kremlin critics in accusing Putin's government of cracking down on dissent, limiting press freedom and breeding widespread corruption in Russia.
Gorbachev led the Soviet Union from 1985 until its collapse in 1991. He remains admired abroad, but he is regarded as insignificant at home and his comments are not likely to threaten Putin's grip on power.
Putin, meanwhile, is striving to show that he still has a vision of reforms in Russia.
In an address to a business leaders' association, Putin said he would like businesses to work more closely with the government on drafting legislation and shaping policies.
But he also urged the business community to revisit the 1990s privatization wave in which many major factories and assets were sold at bargain prices to those who have become Russia's richest men.
"We need to close this problem of the 1990s, what was, frankly speaking, dishonest privatization," Putin said. "This should a one-off contribution or something like that. But we need to think about it together."
Putin is running against five other candidates, and one of them, New Jersey Nets tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov, is trailing second in polls in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Prokhorov addressed the same business group a few hours before Putin and suggested that businessmen voluntarily donate 1 percent of their personal income and 0.2 percent of their companies' profits to a "social fund" to finance important but expensive projects like cancer and heart disease research or schools for talented children.
"Only this approach could help us regain trust of the society," he said.
Prokhorov left before Putin addressed the same audience, listing steps that could help Russian businesses, such as cutting the number of permits needed for opening and running businesses and rewriting Russian labor laws to make them more business-friendly.
Although Putin was enthusiastically received by the audience, the business executives still seem to take his promises with a pinch of salt.
"All of this is doable," Moscow-based consultant Andrei Muradov said, referring to Putin's list of ways to improve the business climate. "The important thing is that it's done with a long-term political will, and not just for the sake of election campaigning."
Victoria Buravchenko contributed to this report.