Saying the breakaway republic of Chechnya had become a "black hole used by criminals and terrorists," Mikhail Gorbachev on Monday spoke in support of the Russian military incursion there.
But during a press conference prior to a speech at the University of Florida, the former Soviet president warned that the invasion could turn into a bloodbath that hurts people, rather than routing terrorists.
"Unfortunately, in a number of situations, Russian troops have crossed that border that divides a war against terrorists from a war against people," Gorbachev said.
He blamed Russian President Boris Yeltsin for failing to seek a political solution to the Chechen crisis both before and after the bloody war in 1994-1996.
Gorbachev said he was asked by the Chechen government before the first war to mediate a peaceful solution, but Yeltsin dismissed the idea.
"Moscow has a large part of the blame for what is happening," Gorbachev said. "The developments in Chechnya are the result of misguided policies conducted for many years."
But Gorbachev said he had little patience with Western critics of this invasion.
"Perhaps this is a propaganda revenge for what happened in Kosovo," said Gorbachev, referring to the Russian criticism of that conflict. "I am against a double standard."
The former Soviet leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who now heads an international environmental organization and is a star on the lecture circuit, was invited to speak at the university by the University Speakers Bureau. He was paid $75,000, which he donated to the Gorbachev Foundation.
During appearances in Berlin in November, to mark the fall the the Berlin Wall, Gorbachev looked pale and tired, less than two months after the death of his wife, Raisa, from leukemia.
But in Gainesville, Gorbachev, who was traveling with a nine-person entourage that included his daughter, looked fit and his voice was strong. He spoke in Russian and used an interpreter who travels with him.
Before the first disastrous invasion of Chechnya, he said, the republic dissolved into a haven for criminals, terrorists, kidnappers and drug smugglers. Afterward, with the economy in shambles, the terrorists and criminal elements were even more in control in Chechnya and were invading neighboring republics.
Because of that, the "current military campaign is being supported by the people and the political parties in Russia," Gorbachev said. "The bandits must be defeated."
Despite some of the excesses of the Russian troops, Gorbachev is encouraged by much of what he has seen so far.
"I welcome the fact that in towns liberated by the army, life is beginning to be rebuilt. Most local administrations are in the hands of local people," he said.
Gorbachev, 68, who led the Soviet Union through the peaceful end of the Cold War and the dismantling of the Eastern block, had no apologies for his administration. Russia's current economic troubles and the reports of a drop in life expectancy in Russia are the result of bad decisions by the leaders who followed him.
"There were a number of mistakes made in economic policy," he said, though he declined to name them.
But looking to the future, Gorbachev said he supports Yevgeny Primakov, saying his former adviser would make an excellent successor to Yeltsin.
"I know the man very well. He is serious, very knowledgeable and, most importantly, a democrat," Gorbachev said. "He will be a reliable leader."
Jim Morrison, a UF associate professor of political science who specializes in Russia, said Gorbachev remains an unpopular figure in his home country, blamed for the end of the empire and the chaos that followed, but lately, Yeltsin's popularity has dipped below even Gorbachev's.
In his speech to a full O'Connell Center on Monday night, Gorbachev called for economic cooperation among nations in the face of globalization; help for Russia's reforms; and a worldwide environmental initiative. Gorbachev called the next 100 years "the environmental century."