By Timothy Heritage
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev proposed on Wednesday reviving a social democratic party in Russia in the hope of uniting leftist groups opposed to President-elect Vladimir Putin.
Gorbachev, 81, was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying he was ready to relaunch a movement he led from 2001 until 2004 but that he would not be its leader.
He has little public support because he is widely blamed for the Soviet Union's collapse, and his party made little impact in its previous incarnation, when it failed to win any seats in the lower house of parliament before it was dissolved in 2007.
Many Russians were skeptical about Gorbachev's proposal.
"It is not productive. Despite all my respect for Mikhail Sergeyevich's state service, he can't move this rock alone," said Gennady Gudkov, a protest leader and opposition lawmaker.
"Gorbachev is popular abroad, but it would be a gross exaggeration to speak of his popularity at home," he said, adding that the opposition should look to reforming leftist parties with seats in parliament.
Gorbachev, who launched "perestroika" (restructuring) reforms and "glasnost" (openness), appears worried that leftist groups are too disunited to take advantage of draft reforms that would make it easier to register political parties.
"There is a lot of confusion about party-building in Russia now and a social democratic party could bring together a wide circle," Interfax quoted him as saying.
"I don't intend to lead this new party but am ready to play a very active role in its creation and I encourage all those who were in the last team of Social Democrats to get involved."
Gorbachev, one of Putin's most vocal critics, ran in the presidential election in 1996 but failed miserably. While unlikely to have wide appeal, his proposal could serve as a wake-up call.
Other leftist leaders have been discussing joining forces to challenge Putin, inspired by the biggest protests against him since he rose to power 12 years ago and the announcement of moves to ease party registration.
The Kremlin, responding to complaints that Putin and his United Russia party dominate the political system, submitted a draft bill to parliament in January that would reduce the number of members a party needs to register from 40,000 to 500.
The draft has completed two of the three readings needed for passage through the lower house and could become law by the time Putin is inaugurated on May 7 for his third term as president following four years as prime minister.
Political analysts say opposition leaders need to unite if they want to challenge Putin because changes in the party registration law could lead to the creation of numerous small parties which would cause him little trouble individually.
Political reform, including the registration of more political parties, has been one of the main demands at rallies triggered by outrage over fraud allegations in a parliamentary election won by United Russia on December 4.
There are seven registered parties in Russia, four of which are represented in the lower house.
(Reporting By Timothy Heritage; Additional reporting by Alissa de Carbonnel; editing by Tim Pearce)