Medvedev response

Putin had to shift into the prime minister's seat in 2008 following two consecutive terms in office, but since then the presidential term has been extended to six years and Putin is eligible to run again in 2012.

About two million questions were submitted by telephone or on the internet to Putin's marathon television show, which was similar to previous call-ins he did when he was president.

Analysts said no one could miss Putin's desire to reclaim the presidency.

"While he coyly said it's too early for a decision, it certainly looked like he has already decided" to return to the presidency in 2012, said Nikolai Petrov of the Carnegie Endowment's Moscow office.

"He's too much of a professional to unveil his actual plans in such a format," Petrov said.

"But he did not reject the idea of returning to the presidency, and, unlike in previous comments, he made no mention of [Dmitry] Medvedev [the Russian president]."

Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a sociologist who studies the Russian political elite, said Putin had decided to run again even before he stepped down.

"I think it was decided in 2007, when strategy was being planned," she said.

"I think it was decided that Putin should not seek a third consecutive term, but that after four years he could return to the presidency."

"If Putin doesn't rule out running, neither do I rule myself out" for the 2012 election, Medvedev, who is visiting Italy, told journalists in Rome when asked about Putin's remarks.

Rich criticised

Putin, who has cast himself as a paternal figure protecting people from terrorism and economic upheavals, said on Thursday that the threat of further attacks remains "very high" following a deadly train bombing that killed 26 people last week.

Last week's train attack left 26 people dead [AFP]
He promised that authorities would act "very harshly" to root out those involved.

The bombing last Friday of the Moscow to St Petersburg express train fueled fears that Russia could face another wave of such attacks.

It was the first deadly strike outside the North Caucasus since the bombings of two airliners and a Moscow subway station attack in 2004.

Putin also focused heavily on economy during the session, which featured televised links with workers from several industrial towns.

He said Russia has "overcome the peak of the crisis", claiming credit for softening its impact and saying that the government will have to spend more money to support the economy in the meantime.

Russia is weathering its worst economic downturn in a decade after commodities prices, the backbone of its economy, collapsed late last year.

But it emerged from the recession in the third quarter, its GDP rising by a seasonally adjusted 0.6 per cent.

Putin used the show to further burnish his common-man appeal, chastising the Russian rich for arrogantly showing off their wealth, saying their fancy imported cars looked as grotesque as golden teeth.

In a careful balancing act in response to a question about Josef Stalin, Putin credited the Soviet dictator for his industrialization drive and World War II victory but denounced the massive repressions under Stalin's regime.