MOSCOW, 1 March 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Mikhail Gorbachev was the leader of the Soviet Union from 1985 to its collapse in 1991.
He is largely remembered as a reformer and the father of free speech in the Soviet Union. He sought to reform the stagnating Communist Party and the Soviet economy by introducing glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring).
His rule was marked by a strong relaxation of Soviet control -- people and the press were granted greater freedoms, and thousands of political prisoners and dissidents were released from prison. Gorbachev's liberal policies earned him strong support in the West, and he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990.
But, as he tells RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service, it was Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev who laid the foundation for perestroika and democratization with his famous "secret speech."
Speaking at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1956, Krushchev had denounced the crimes committed under Josef Stalin and the cult of personality that surrounded the deceased dictator.
Gorbachev called the 20th Congress "one of the first steps towards humanizing society, towards basic freedoms and fundamental values."
He told RFE/RL that he still believed that Russia should strive towards what he calls "democratic socialism," or "socialism with a human face," and warned against the resurging nostalgia for Stalin.
"There are people who, because there is poverty [say] 'Stalin would not have tolerated this,' and, because there is corruption, [say] 'Stalin would not have tolerated this.' These are attempts to exploit people's ignorance," Gorbachev said. "There are political leaders who speculate on people's ignorance. But we must not in any case stray from the path of democratization. We must walk along the path towards the development of democratic institutions, the development of a socially oriented market economy, towards spiritual freedom and freedom of religion."
Stalinism, he added, must be eradicated.
Gorbachev went on to reaffirm his support for President Putin and praised him for bringing stability to Russia.
Putin, he said, saved the country from chaos and collapse.
"I understand the difficulties and problems of President Putin. He inherited chaos and I think we must give him his due -- despite all the shortcomings, miscalculations, errors, he pulled the country out of chaos," Gorbachev said. "Our country was threatened by collapse. This is the most important achievement of his first years in power. Now we must take advantage of this chance to further develop economic growth, democratic institutions, etc."
Gorbachev, however, admitted that Putin's regime had on some occasions backpedaled on democracy.
For instance, Gorbachev criticized Putin's decision to abolish the popular elections of regional leaders by establishing a system under which the president himself puts forward candidates for approval by regional assemblies.
Gorbachev taking his oath as the first president of the Soviet Union on 15 March 1990
He said he supported Putin's efforts to fight electoral corruption in the regions, but argued that the president should have sought to consolidate the Kremlin's control over the regions without stripping the population of its right to elect regional leaders.
Nonetheless, Gorbachev said he remained convinced that Putin does not seek to establish a totalitarian regime.
He justified the democratic shortcomings under Putin by saying that the current political regime in Russia, and society itself, were "transitional" and would require many more years to achieve a fully fledged democracy.
Gorbachev also briefly touched on the war in Chechnya, relaunched by Putin in 1999.
He said he believed that rebels aspired not only to obtain Chechnya's independence, but also to create an Islamist government in the North Caucasus -- something he said neither Russia nor other countries must allow.
He told RFE/RL that he endorsed what he called the current "Chechenization" process, where moderate Chechens are gaining increasing freedom to run their own affairs, and said Chechnya should be granted independent status within the Russian Federation.
He also urged the federal authorities to work hard to combat unemployment and poverty in Chechnya, since, he said, a number of politicians and extremists are tapping into social discontent to promote their own interests.