Members of the studio audience of 400 invited guests were also asking questions and there were live television links to questioners in Russia's regions.

Possible return

Putin's first questioner was a telephone caller who said he lost his job along with others in his town and asked how he could survive.

Putin said he was confident that the world economy would pick up and revive demand for Russian raw material exports; in the meantime, unemployment pay was being increased, he said.

With speculation continuing about his possible return to the presidency, analysts are watching whether Putin can maintain his popularity in the current climate with voters who had trusted him during the previous ten years of economic boom.

Putin instituted the broadcast when he was president and has decided to continue it in his new role as premier and leader of the ruling parliamentary party, United Russia.

Putin's handpicked successor as president, Dmitry Medvedev, has given no indication since taking over in May that he plans any similar such session.

Economic worries

Russians, fearful of a repeat of the country's devastating 1998 economic crisis, have been withdrawing roubles from their bank accounts and buying dollars, putting pressure on the national currency.

Putin reiterated government promises that there would be no sudden, sharp devaluation of the rouble and pledged to use the country's gold and foreign exchange reserves to ensure this.

In previous years, the question-and-answer session has given Putin a national platform to show his sympathy for popular causes such as better pensions and curbing inflation, as well as show off a mastery of economic statistics, crack jokes and taunt his adversaries.