The Soviet Union's last leader Mikhail Gorbachev on Wednesday expressed sadness that Russia was "going backwards", two decades after the coup that precipitated the collapse of the USSR.
In a clear attack on the dominant political grouping of Vladimir Putin, Gorbachev, 80, also warned that Russia should not repeat the mistake of the Soviet Union in being ruled by a monopoly.
Russia on Friday marks 20 years since the August 19, 1991 coup by Soviet hardliners against Gorbachev's policy of reform which ended up hastening the demise of the entire USSR in December that year.
"In short, I am unhappy," said Gorbachev.
"We are ranked lowest, together with African countries" in terms of mortality rate, and "half the numbers of people receive education compared with the post-war years," Gorbachev lamented.
"There must be rotation in the higher ranks," he said in response to a question of who should be the next president.
The 20th anniversary of the Soviet collapse is set against an increasingly anxious atmosphere of uncertainty over who will be Russia's president for the next six years after polls next spring.
Gorbachev regularly criticises Putin, who served as president after Boris Yeltsin from 2000, and is currently prime minister. Putin is still the main decision maker in the country even after giving up the Kremlin seat to his protege Dmitry Medvedev in 2008.
"The renewal is not limited to Putin or Medvedev, there need to be honest elections," Gorbachev continued, but instead, "we use administrative resources" and regions are ordered to provide a certain percentage for the right candidates.
Gorbachev said he believed that the latest arrival in Russia's political landscape -- billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov who heads the liberal Right Cause party -- is acting "on government orders".
"The party is being organised, but by the government's decree," he said. "He has the chance to receive votes, but if he won't get enough, they will raise them for him."
"If the regime is doing everything to strengthen its power, these are signs of authoritarianism," he said.
Analysts have increasingly speculated that Putin intends to return to the Kremlin and the prime minister has launched a broad-based United Civic Front to bring in supporters for his ruling United Russia party.
"The monopoly needs to be given up, we cannot repeat the Soviet Union's worst forms," Gorbachev said, calling the Front "unacceptable".
Observers have compared the United Russia party with the Communist Party which had a complete monopoly over policy making in the Soviet Union for 80 years until it was outlawed by Yeltsin.
Yeltsin emerged as a popular leader after the coup when he coordinated supporters shielding the White House, the Russian parliament, from troops called in by coup organisers while Gorbachev was held at a government dacha cut off from communication.
"There could have been a civil war in a country full of weapons, including nuclear ones," Gorbachev said, commenting on criticism that he behaved weakly. "That we avoided."
The senior Communist Party rebels against Gorbachev included the head of the KGB and his own vice president as well as the Soviet Union's defence and interior ministers.
Gorbachev, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990, is regarded with suspicion in Russia for destroying the Soviet Union, and some coup organisers alleged that he covertly supported them in an attempt to remove Yeltsin, then the president of the USSR's dominant Russian component, from power.
Gorbachev has always rubbished this suggestion. But this week he admitted for the first time that he received phone calls ahead of the coup warning him of the conservative lobby's radical plans, one of which came from the US president George H.W. Bush.