Human Rights Watch expressed recent concern over laws passed in Russia that expand the definition of treason. A crackdown on the role of nongovernmental organizations, passed in July, was equally problematic for the rights group.
Putin was elected last year to a third non-consecutive term as president. His re-election was marred by protests and his administration has cracked down on political opponents.
Gorbachev, who led the Soviet Union from 1988 until it dissolved in 1991, told the BBC that Putin's policies were indicative of a leader concerned about his hold on power.
"I get the feeling he's very tense and worried. Not everything is going well," Gorbachev, 82, said. "I think he should change his style and make adjustments to the regime."
Russian dissident Sergei Udaltsov last month was sentenced to house arrest until April 6. The leader of the Left Front movement, he's accused of plotting against the state.
Gorbachev said cases like that suggest Putin is fearful of political opponents.
"What people want and expect their president to do is to restore an open, direct dialogue with them," Gorbachev said.