Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has described Russia as an imitation of democracy and accused its rulers of conceit and contempt for voters, in his harshest criticism of the government yet.
He criticised prime minister Vladimir Putin and his protege, president Dmitry Medvedev, for saying that they will decide between them who should run for president in Russia's March 2012 presidential vote.
Mr Gorbachev denounced the statements as a show of "incredible conceit" and disrespect for voters. "It's not Putin's business. It must be decided by the nation in the elections, by those who would cast ballots," he said at a news conference. "Can't other people also run?"
He has previously avoided personal criticism of Mr Putin, who has remained Russia's leading politician after shifting into the premier's post following two presidential terms. He is widely expected to reclaim the presidency in 2012.
Mr Gorbachev, who will turn 80 next week, said that Russia has only "imitations" of a parliament and judicial system.
He called for a probe into last week's statement by an assistant to the judge who convicted oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky who said the judge did not write the verdict and read it against his will in the Moscow courtroom.
Judge Viktor Danilkin found Khodorkovsky guilty in December of stealing from his own oil company and extended his prison term through to 2017.
Mr Putin has been seen as the driving force behind the unrelenting legal attack on Khodorkovsky, who challenged him early in his presidency and has been imprisoned since 2003. Shortly before the verdict was announced, Mr Putin called him a thief and said he should stay in prison.
Mr Gorbachev said that the case had clear political roots, tracing it back to the tycoon's criticism of Mr Putin. "Politics shouldn't have been involved in that, but they were," he said.