MOSCOW (Reuters) - Vladimir Putin has a knack for reading the Russian people's mood, yet for a brief moment on Thursday, when asked about alleged privileges enjoyed by the offspring of his associates, he found himself at odds with popular sentiment.
Putin was giving his annual news conference -- a platform to show off his commanding presence and folksy wisdom -- when a reporter said a generation of privileged Russians could act with impunity because their parents were part of Putin's circle.
"When you came to power in 2000, is this the sort of result you expected?" the reporter, Yekaterina Vinokurova, asked Putin. "Maybe there are some things that should be corrected, maybe it's not yet too late?"
The comment from Vinokurova, who works not for a major media outlet but an online publication based in Ural mountain city of Yekaterinburg, elicited applause from the audience, unusual for an event attended by large numbers of journalists sympathetic to Putin.
After waiting for the clapping to end, Putin replied that if anyone was guilty of corruption, it was up to the legal system to investigate and that people's careers could not be ended on the basis of unproven allegations.
Describing corruption scandals as "side effects" that happen in almost every country, he said people should not forget his main achievements were increasing the size of the economy and restoring the armed forces.
It was a subdued response compared to the outspoken rhetoric he deploys on other subjects and contrasted with a growing furore about the issue outside the Kremlin walls.
Russian truckers have been protesting against a new system of tariffs that is being administered by a firm co-owned by Igor Rotenberg, whose father is Putin's close friend and former judo sparring partner. [nL8N13W3DZ]
Oleg Kashin, a high-profile journalist, alleged that he was beaten up by people connected to Andrei Turchak, the 39-year-old governor of the Pskov region in north-west Russia. Turchak, the son of a businessman with long-standing ties to Putin, has denied the allegation.
Earlier this month, Russia's Novaya Gazeta published allegations that a son of Russian Prosecutor-General Yuri Chaika owned two hotels in Greece and a property in Switzerland, among other foreign assets.
Chaika has said the allegations were fabricated on the orders of people threatened by his crackdown on crime.
Alexei Grazhdankin, deputy director of independent pollster Levada Center said Russians were disturbed by signs of political patronage. "People who are in power and have some kinds of privileges and preferential treatment and build a business on these links provoke a certain amount of irritation," he said.
At the moment that was not damaging Putin's personal popularity, he said. Polls give him an approval rating of around 85 percent, and that support is unlikely to collapse soon.
But Grazhdankin said Putin was only safe from reputational damage as long as Russians were satisfied with their lot.
As ordinary people see their income shrink because of a recession made worse by Western sanctions, they are likely to pay more attention to the gulf between the rich and the poor, and especially to the wealthy individuals around Putin.
People who have spent time in Putin's company say he finds stories about corruption among his circle distasteful, but that he is loyal to his friends. One reason he is tolerant on sleaze is that he believes that if he sacks someone, whoever replaces them is likely to be more corrupt, they say.
Some people have described the children of Putin associates as "princelings", a phrase more usually used to describe the offspring of senior Communist Party officials in China.
At Thursday's news conference, the reporter described Igor Rotenberg, and Chaika's son, and Andrei Turchak as members of a generation of elite offspring "who will never be able to revive Russia, or protect Russia".
She said whenever journalists raised questions about people in this clique, officials accused them of carrying out the orders of the West to discredit the Kremlin.
At the end of his response, Putin got into his stride, recounting a joke he said had been doing the rounds during Soviet rule, when a bureaucrat decided not to give someone a promotion on the basis of a false rumour involving a fur coat.
"We cannot behave that way," in the case of allegations against the offspring of Kremlin associates, Putin said.
"We need to look at the essence of the problems, and not try to use a particular complicated situation to serve some kind of quasi-political ends."
Editing by Philippa Fletcher