Mr Gorbachev spoke in Russian and his text has been translated to English. This transcript was done from a vhs recording of the interview. We have made every effort but cannot guarantee total accuracy.
Tim Sebastian: Mikhail Gorbachev, a very warm welcome to the programme. In the wake of the tragedy in Beslan, you have warned, you have accused the government of trying to sharply limit democratic reforms. How serious is that?
Mikhail Gorbachev: First of all I, used the word "warning" rather than "accusation". And that's as far as it goes. On the one hand, I support some of the president's proposals, regarding government structures in the southern regions, that the situation there should be closely monitored, that they must be helped...
TS: But you talk about limiting people's rights..
MG: One moment, one moment.. And I support the idea of creating a ministry for national and regional affairs, or rather recreating one, because there was such a ministry in the past. These are perfectly normal proposals in the context of tightening security and control over the security services. Otherwise they'll just slip up. But I questioned the logic of linking this to the electoral system. In his time the president, and others, have supported the idea of senators being elected by the Federation Council. And now on top of this there is the proposal to appoint the governors [rather than their being elected]
TS: So, what is Putin doing then? Is he using the war on terror as an excuse for a political crackdown?
MG: I don't think he's trying to create some kind of authoritarian regime. Although some authoritarian methods are unavoidable. The situation in Russia is complicated. The country requires more and more regulation. It's a vast and complicated country that's going through a period of change. That's no simple task. Often the positive steps taken at the top, taken by Putin, get lost at the point of delivery. The problem of carrying out government decisions has always been an acute problem in Russia.
TS: But you are sufficiently worried about democracy in Russia to speak out.
MG: Yes, yes. Furthermore, I said that this proposal needs to be discussed, both by parliament and in society as a whole. In fact there's a debate going on about this at the moment. If the president needs to intervene in any particular region, provision should be made under law for him to do so, if the law is being broken there or if some governor has got out of control. And I think this is perfectly possible. But why take away people's right to vote?
TS: So why do you think he's doing this then? What are his motives? If his actions have nothing to do with the war on terror, why is he taking these moves?
MG: You know, you and I are sitting here now discussing this and worrying about it. But at the time, both the president and the whole country were in a state of shock. He said a lot on the spur of the moment. He spoke in a way unlike he's ever spoken before in the five years he's been in power. He was extremely concerned, and so..
TS: So you think it was a sudden reaction to events?
MG: To a large extent, yes.
TS: This is not a former KGB man who simply wants to strengthen his power and use the events in Beslan as an excuse for doing that?
MG: No.. he's not that kind of a KGB man. He served his time on the sidelines. He didn't take part in those internal processes, let alone any kind of repressions etc. He's a decent man.
TS: But you yourself told me on this programme that, when you were president, you knew you had to be careful with the KGB.
MG: Absolutely. Absolutely.
TS: So it was a dangerous organisation, even to you?
MG: Furthermore, you had to pay close attention to what they were saying. Even now they're conducting a campaign against me. The old KGB at least, they didn't like democracy.
TS: So when you look at the political moves which Putin wants to take after Beslan, you almost find yourself in agreement with Washington which is talking about changes to Russia's electoral law, pulling back on some of the democratic reforms? You're almost more in agreement with the Americans than with the Kremlin.
MG: Or maybe the Americans agree with me? I said what I thought straight away, on the very same day as the events took place. No, of course I know what the Americans are saying, what they're saying in Europe, in Russia, that's clear. But I always have my own opinion. I think his current proposal would limit voters' rights, very important citizens' rights, and I don't think this is the time for that.
TS: So you have said, your common goal is to make sure that bills, which in essence mean a step back from democracy don't come into force as law. So what are you going to do about it, to prevent these bills becoming law?
MG: I will do what I always do, the only thing I can do, which is to talk openly and straightforwardly. And I've said what I have to say. It's been published.
TS: But Putin is a popular man in Russia, a very popular man in Russia. He's going to get his way, isn't he?
MG: Well you know, I was popular too, but nonetheless I was criticised, and I had to take those criticisms into account. And I took a lot from what others said. I am one of those who can see the positive in Putin's policies, and I support him, because he is trying to work in the interests of the majority. But I don't think now is the time to tighten the screws. There are times when you do need to do that. I'm a mechanic, a combine operator. If you don't keep an eye on the screws and tighten them from time to time, the whole combine harvester will fall apart, the system will fall apart. The same goes in this case. But Beslan showed us that the issue here are the local authorities. Terrorist were coming and going all summer, practically in full view. How was this allowed to happen?
TS: And the security services did nothing about it?
MG: Absolutely. And furthermore, during the crisis itself, when it was clear that there were hostages, children, they managed the situation abysmally.
TS: So why haven't there been mass sackings then? Why hasn't the interior minister been sacked? Why hasn't the head of security, the FSB been sacked?
MG: I have asked that very same question.
TS: You would have sacked them?
MG: .. and while we're on the subject, I can't say this for sure, but I was under the impression that he did in fact send the head of the FSB and the interior minister out there. They were there, but we didn't see them. What were they doing there? They never made any statements.
TS: So you would have sacked them under these circumstances?
MG: Well, I don't know all the fact so I can't say. But you know yourself that when it was necessary, I would sack people. I can't speak for Putin here, but he should understand.. and I think he does understand.
TS: So what does it say about him that he hasn't sacked these people? Does he not feel strong enough to sack these people?
MG: No, I don't think so. He is probably limited in what he can do in this situation because he came to the job without a team of his own. The duties of Prime Minister and then President were literally thrust on him..
TS: But maybe like you he feels he has to be careful of the KGB?
MG: I think I'm right in saying that he isn't spoilt for choice, so he chooses people he knows. In any case, he has some serious problems to think about. And I think this will have been talked about. It's just that these discussions haven't been made public. And since they haven't been made public, I think these people will remain in their positions. He will have talked to them seriously, but I think they'll stay.
TS: Is his own position under threat? Has it become more delicate in the last few months because of events?
MG: I think his position has become more complicated, but it is not under threat.
TS: You don't foresee a situation where he could be thrown out?
MG: I think he has enormous resources. His greatest resource, which makes him unassailable, is the support of the people. I'm not talking about opinion polls, which can be fixed as easy as you like. No, I'm talking about real support. And you can understand the electorate. They judge him against the background of ten years of Yeltsin's rule. Putin brought a degree of order, stability, problems are starting to be resolved etc. But he hasn't earned full marks yet, far from it.
TS: But the question now is whether Russia is moving in the right direction or in the wrong direction, and according to you it's moving now in some ways very much in the wrong direction.
MG: I think Russia still has to make its choice. Because if we choose the path of modernisation, building a democratically free state, and Putin made it clearer than ever that this is his aim in his latest address to the Federal Assembly..
TS: And if you don't go that way?
MG: Let me finish. If that remains his aim, then.. But if he has changes his views under some form of pressure, then I think that would be a mistake. I think we need to go down that path, and if we're going to talk about strong government, then we must talk about strong democratic government.
TS: Looking at the events in Beslan, you reject the use of force. You say about Russia: we're not in a state of war. You say terrorism can be vanquished through politics first and foremost and not through force. You say there's enormous political and diplomatic work to be done in reaching a solution in Chechnya. But how do you reach this solution?
MG: You know, I'm surprised. I get the impression from you and from the Germans that you think that we do nothing but wage war in Chechnya. This is not the case. Chechnya has undergone some very big changes. First of all, the people are tired. They want a different life. So many victims and destruction, they can't take any more. Putin's policies now are moving towards reconstruction. We're already seeing the education system start to work, the health service, communications, sanitation and so on. All the conditions required for life. Most Chechens have now returned home. These are very important signs, very important steps.
TS: But that's only one side of it. Their cities have been destroyed and their people have suffered massive human rights violations, haven't they?
MG: No, no, let me continue. Hear me out please. That will be more useful. You're a well informed man, but all the same.. It's good to get the facts. The most important thing to recognise is that Chechens are running their republic themselves. There's a constitution, there was a referendum, they've held elections.
TS: Do you think the Russian told the whole truth about Beslan? Because many people in Russia don't think they did. Where do you stand?
MG: No, if they thought that, there would have been no need to set up the parliamentary inquiry.
TS: So they didn't tell the truth?
MG: I don't know. The inquiry will look into it and decide whether they told the truth or not. But the fact that the number of hostages was initially 300 and then turned out to be more than 1,000.. I can't believe they didn't know. So they were hiding something. Or someone was hiding something. In fact, the president came round to the idea of a parliamentary investigation. He didn't support the idea initially.
TS: How do you explain the apparent extreme sensitivity of people like the foreign minister, Lavrov for example, basically telling western countries to mind their own business about what's happening in Russia, not to criticise, not to get involved, almost a return to cold war language. How do you explain this extreme sensitivity?
MG: I think this is connected to what I was talking about earlier. Europeans have a very inaccurate picture of what is really going on in Russia. In fact, no one really thinks about what's happening there, what kind of a country it is that is going through this process of reform. There has been nothing comparable in recent history.
TS: But as you yourself said, the Europeans are trying to help. They showed solidarity with Russia in its time of need and now they've been told to get lost.
MG: I think the fact that they showed solidarity and tried to help, materially and politically, that was correct. Because the country was in shock. True, there wasn't panic..
TS: And they're repaid by being told to get lost.
MG: I cannot agree with you. I have not heard anyone say get lost. No, I don't think that is the case.
TS: Foreign Minister Lavrov made it clear. He said: "Stay out of our business. What's happening in Russia is the internal affair of Russia." He's made it quite clear.
MG: Well, first of all it is indeed an internal matter.
TS: There's a polite way of saying it, or there's a rude way of saying it, isn't there?
MG: Our government doesn't make judgement on the way Tony Blair's government has been handling itself lately. We don't tell Chancellor Schroeder to reverse his programme of social reforms. No, these are the internal affairs of Germany and Great Britain. But the press does comment, and that's the way it should be.
TS: When it comes to times of crisis like we've seen in Russia, do you still wish you had power? Do you still wish you could pick up the telephone and tell people what to do?
MG: No, I think I've done enough. If I were to start getting involved, especially now, that would be immodest. How we've used those chances created by perestroika, by our internal and foreign policies, is another matter. A lot has been achieved: democracy in central and eastern Europe; democracy in Russia itself, even if it needs nurturing. These are all the result of perestroika, the end of the cold war, a united Germany etc.
TS: So you have no more personal political ambitions?
MG: No, not to hold any public office. But I will remain involved in politics, in the broadest sense.
TS: And now that you're concerned still with weapons of mass destruction, do you think that you could have done more. I know that you helped get rid of a whole class of intermediate nuclear missiles, but could you have done more in the field of biological and chemical weapons?
MG: I think everyone agrees that we did more than anyone expected.
TS: So you don't think you could have done more?
MG: I think we did the most we could under the circumstances. I had to negotiate with Margaret Thatcher, whose idea on nuclear weapons was completely different. I believe now that the time has come for the other nuclear power to start talking about reductions in nuclear arms, in compliance with article 6, I believe it is, of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, with the ultimate aim of complete nuclear disarmament. All the more so when we see the extent of international terrorism, when the slightest slip could lead to these weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of terrorists. This is not conventional explosives we're talking about.
TS: Mikhail Sergeevich, the Russia that you opened up through perestroika to the rest of the world, if President Putin closes up the opening that you made, how much of a step back would that be?
MG: I have no reason to believe that this is his aim. Even if the circumstances are difficult, this is not the way to solve Russia's problems. And I am sure this is not the path he will take. The fact is that all over the world, especially in the West, countries are tightening control: over immigration, at borders, everywhere. I would say that this tendency is stronger in the West than it is in Russia. So it would seem that these measures are justified in the context of the scale and aggression of the terrorism with we have encountered.
TS: But what do you think the West could or should do to prevent closing up the democratic freedoms that you helped to bring in?
MG: I think that the West should cooperate with Russia in the war on terror. Because in the West they know all about financing: what money comes from which bank, down to the last 100 dollars. So they know about the channels that finance the terrorists. These channels must be closed down. Intelligence must be shared, etc. All of these measures must be taken in the context of the fight against terrorism. Russia should discuss all of these things, weigh up the options. I think that Putin's proposal after Beslan, to appoint governors, will be revised. I don't think that should happen, I think it would be highly undesirable. For Russia first and foremost, not because we are trying to please someone else. We are talking about the situation in Russia and the measures the country is taking as a result. In the same way, Britain and especially America make their own decisions. America pays no attention to anyone if it wants to solve a problem in a particular way. Not to the Security Council, not to anyone. They just went into Iraq. Everyone was against it. Their own people were against it, all of Europe was against it, the world, but they went in anyway.
TS: So why should Russia not take measures to ensure that more misery does not befall its people?
MG Now there's a topic of conversation.
TS: Mikhail Gorbachev very good to have you on the programme. Thank you very much indeed.
MG: It was a pleasure speaking to you again.
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