updated 9/30/2008 5:31:36 PM ET 2008-09-30T21:31:36

A Russian billionaire said Tuesday he is teaming up with former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to form a new political party that will challenge the country's recent steps away from democracy.

Alexander Lebedev, a former lawmaker who has built a fortune in business and investment, said he and Gorbachev would work together in a political movement tentatively named the Independent Democratic Party.

Kremlin critics say that during his eight years as president, current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin reversed Russia's post-Soviet movement toward democracy and enhanced state control over the economy, courts and media.

Gorbachev could not immediately be reached for comment and it wasn't clear if the 77-year-old planned to seek an active political role more than 17 years after the Soviet Union collapsed around him, costing him his job as its last leader.

It would be an uphill battle: Gorbachev is popular abroad, but is reviled by many Russians who blame him for the Soviet breakup. He won less than 1 percent of the votes in the 1996 presidential election and has not run since.

In a statement on his Web site, Lebedev said the new party was Gorbachev's idea. "The initiative belongs to President Gorbachev. He gave our people freedom, but we have not learned how to use it."

Lebedev said the party would advocate a "return to a normal electoral system," calling for the restoration of gubernatorial elections, a stronger parliament, independent courts and media, and a smaller state role in the economy.

Praises and criticisms
Gorbachev has generally praised Putin for lifting the nation out of the post-Soviet troubles that many Russians blame on the late Boris Yeltsin, a longtime rival of Gorbachev who replaced him in the Kremlin.

But he has cautiously criticized the political system put in place by Putin. The United Russia party of the immensely popular Putin dominates parliament and regional governments while Kremlin critics have been sidelined, sometimes though force.

Earlier this year, Gorbachev suggested that United Russia was in danger of becoming like the all-powerful Soviet-era Communist Party and called for major changes in the electoral system.

Lebedev, a major private shareholder in the Russian airline Aeroflot, joined with Gorbachev in 2006 to buy 49 percent of Novaya Gazeta, an independent newspaper that has challenged the Kremlin with penetrating investigative reporting. Anna Politkovskaya, a prominent investigative reporter murdered that year, worked for Novaya Gazeta.

In June, Gorbachev and Lebedev urged the creation of a national museum and memorial to honor victims of Soviet-era repression — a move seen as a challenge to the government, which critics say has glossed over the crimes of Josef Stalin to justify its own retreat from democracy.

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