The last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, said today that former US president George H.W. Bush had warned him about his safety a few weeks before Communist hardliners staged their August 1991 coup.

The ex-Soviet president and Nobel Peace Prize winner said on the eve of the failed plot's 20th anniversary that Bush had relayed the message in a telephone conversation amid signs of Communist Party discontent with liberal reforms.

The revelation came in a wide-ranging newspaper interview in which the 80-year-old Gorbachev again lamented his inability to save the Soviet empire from disintegration and blasted his democratic rival Boris Yeltsin.

"Bush called me. He was citing information from Moscow mayor Gavriil Popov," Gorbachev told Rossiyskaya Gazeta in reference to the August 19, 1991 coup in which hardliners attempted to derail his liberal reforms.

But Gorbachev said he did not believe the US president because "you have to be an idiot" to decide to seize power by force amid signs of fundamental changes within the Soviet Union.

"Unfortunately, they really were idiots," said Gorbachev.

The senior Communist Party revolt against Gorbachev included the head of the KGB and his own vice president as well the Soviet Union's defence and interior ministers.

The group of veteran party members imposed house arrest on Gorbachev while he was vacationing on the Black Sea and pronounced themselves in charge and the era of liberalisation effectively over.

"I should not have taken that vacation," Gorbachev admitted. "That was a mistake."

The coup attempt lasted three days and saw Gorbachev's younger rival Yeltsin ultimately grab power in Russia and then dissolve the Soviet Union a few months later.

Gorbachev says he never intended to bury the Soviet Union when launching his unprecedented programmes and has remained strongly critical of Yeltsin for making the breakup official in December 1991.

"He had such a thirst for power," Gorbachev said of Yeltsin. "I should have sent him to a banana republic as an ambassador so he could smoke a hookah where it's nice and quiet."

Bush was seen during his 1989-93 presidency as one of the closest Western leaders to Gorbachev and was slow to voice public support for Yeltsin's drive for an independent Russia.

The Soviet and US presidents signed a non-aggression pact in November 1990 proclaiming an end to the Cold War and have since frequently both appeared at events marking the historic era's anniversaries.

Gorbachev said he believed the United States and Germany were at the time supportive of the idea of saving the Soviet Union "because they did not know if they might get hit by the pieces if the union breaks up."

"But others in Washington were rolling up their sleeves and secretly nudging them ahead," he said.

Gorbachev said "Bush was holding back the Ukrainians' and the Baltic states'" drive for independence.

The 15-republic union shattered shortly after the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989 during a swell of reunification support in the Communist and Western halves of Germany.

Lithuania proclaimed independence in March 1990 and was followed the next year by its two tiny Baltic neighbours along with Ukraine.

Gorbachev conceded that he may have started his perestroika (rebuilding) and glasnost (openness) reform programmes too late to save the Soviet Union.

But he said he had urged Bush and other top Western leaders to sign off on a $30-billion-loan to Moscow in June 1991 that may have helped the USSR survive.

"The Americans and the Japanese were against it," Gorbachev said.

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