Russia needs a change of leadership and free elections to stop it sliding backwards 20 years after a coup that hastened the end of the Soviet Union, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev said on Wednesday.

At a news conference marking the anniversary of the failed 1991 coup by hardline communists who opposed his "perestroika" reforms, Gorbachev avoided direct criticism of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin but said more democracy was needed in Russia.

"We need a change in the top leadership," Gorbachev, 80, said when asked who should be Russia's next president. "There comes a time when you have to get out of a rut."

"We need free elections ... People must feel something depends on them."

Gorbachev, now 80, greyer and fuller in the face than when he was Soviet leader from 1985 until 1991, clung to power for only a few months after the coup failed and the Soviet Union was dissolved at the end of 1991.

Asked his views on the situation in Russia two decades after the failed coup, during which he was held captive at a residence in the Crimea from August 19 to 21, Gorbachev said: "In short, I am dissatisfied."

"The current policy proposals and the current government are a move backwards," he said.

He gave few details but called for reforms to improve the economic situation and deal with problems such as poverty, corruption, high mortality rates and falling education standards.

Gorbachev acknowledged that Russians respected Putin for pulling Russia out of chaos when he succeeded Boris Yeltsin as Russia's president in 2000.

But Putin has faced criticism for being authoritarian, and Gorbachev said authoritarian methods were called for only in certain circumstances.

"If it starts more generally to become an authoritarian regime ... this is a different matter," Gorbachev said.

Putin could seek a third term as president in an election next March but has not said whether he or his protege Dmitry Medvedev, president since 2008, will run. Putin is Russia's paramount leader and is likely to have the final say.

Russian elections have been widely criticised as not being fully fair because of the dominant position of parties in power, currently Putin's United Russia, the lack of a strong opposition and the Kremlin's grip on the media.

Criticising United Russia and Putin's creations of a broad Popular Front to fight a parliamentary election in December, Gorbachev said it was time to end monopolies which harked back to Soviet times.

"They are creating unnecessary organisations and fronts now. We don't need them," he said.