MOSCOW (Reuters) - Vladimir Putin offered to ease slightly his tight political control of Russian politics in token concessions to protesters he suggested had been paid to turn out in the biggest demonstrations since he took power 12 years ago.
In a 4-1/2 hour call-in question-and-answer show that was broadcast live across Russia and intended to rebuild support as he prepares to reclaim the presidency, the long-serving prime minister sought to portray himself as a reasonable, even-handed national leader who can unite his people.
But many Russians on the social network Twitter suggested his efforts had failed, saying the 59-year-old former spy was out of touch three months before the presidential election he hopes to win.
Breaking his silence on rallies by tens of thousands of people on December 10 Putin mixed words of praise with suggestions that some of the demonstrators complaining of electoral fraud and demanding a new election were paid to show up.
"I saw on people on the TV screens ... mostly young people, active and with positions that they expressed clearly," Putin said. "This makes me happy, and if that is the result of the Putin regime, that's good -- there's nothing bad about it."
"They will at least make some money," he said, without saying who he thought might have been the paymaster. Putin has in the past, to the derision of opponents, suggested the United States had stirred protests and foreign states had funded them.
Putin, 59, said that at first he thought the white ribbons worn by the protesters as a sign of dissent were part of an anti-AIDS campaign, and he had mistaken them for condoms.
A doctored photo was soon doing the rounds on the Internet, with Putin wearing a condom on his chest instead of a medal
Dressed in a suit and tie at a large desk as he took questions by phone and from a studio audience, and sometimes via videolinks with cities across the vast country, he also looked less at ease than in previous years.
Putin, broaching the possibility of changes in a tightly controlled political system, suggested legislation might be latered to allow small opposition parties to be registered.
One of Putin's main acts after taking power in 1999 was to remove elected governors in Russia's regions and appoint his own representatives, restoring strong Kremlin control. This he said headed off a danger of the world's biggest country breaking up.
Putin hinted at reintroducing direct elections, but only after the president had approved candidates proposed by parties -- an idea scarcely likely to win support from critics.
"We can move in this direction," he said.
Putin gave no indication he would respond to the protesters' main demands such as sacking the central election commission chief and rerunning the election which returned Putin's United Russia party with a reduced majority.
He appears to be intent instead on riding out the protests and hoping they fade, although another day of protest is planned by the opposition on December 24.
"That's it. It's the end. Putin is completely out of touch. And this is becoming more obvious to everyone. You had to think hard to insult the people like this," wrote one person who identified himself as Oleg Kozyrev.
A 21-year-old trainee lawyer who gave his name only as Yevgeny said in the city of Yekaterinburg: "He did not even show any interest in what people were saying ... Aliens have nothing in common with earthlings."
Many of the people at rallies over alleged electoral fraud are young professionals in big cities who have answered online calls to protest and want the political system opened up to include a liberal opposition reflecting their views.
Some of their allegations were backed by international vote monitors who said the December 4 election was slanted to favour Putin's United Russia party, although it won only a slim majority in the lower house of parliament.
Many Russians saw an announcement by Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev on September 24 that they planned to swap jobs as a sign that everything had been cooked up between them with no respect for democracy. Putin confirmed on Thursday he wanted Medvedev to become premier after the March election.
Putin sought to appear democratic and unconcerned about the protests by saying they were "absolutely normal as long as everyone acts within the framework of the law."
"From my point of view, the result of the election undoubtedly reflects public opinion in the country," he said, making clear there would be no election rerun.
But at another point, he turned to the journalist hosting the call-in and said: "I've had enough of these questions about the elections."
Russia-based economists said Putin was clearly having to work harder than in previous years to maintain his credibility and doubted he had won any new support in his performance.
"He's not winning any fresh votes. He didn't say anything to win the votes of the other crowd (of opponents) - he could have used this big event to push forward his rating," said Alexey Bachurin, of Renaissance Capital investment bank.
Putin has used the annual call-in he has held for the past decade to burnish his image as a strong leader with a detailed knowledge of the country and an interest in all its people. Thursday's show was the longest yet, beating out last year's by five minutes.
As usual there were many questions about social issues such as healthcare, pensions and housing, and Putin suggested he was the single leader capable of uniting and maintaining stability in the world's biggest energy producer.
As often in the past, he had strong words for the West, and particularly former Cold War enemy the United States.
"The United States does not need allies, it needs vassals," he said.
He defended his economic record, saying there had been some "remarkable and meaningful" achievements such as reducing poverty, despite the global economic crisis of 2008-09.
He hinted that former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, who is held in high regard by foreign investors and many young professionals, could return to government after falling out with the Kremlin in September.
"Such people were needed and will be needed in past and future governments," he said of Kudrin, who has spoken recently of forming a liberal party and suggested he might join protests.
Reporting by Timothy Heritage; Editing by Douglas Busvine