MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday he faced no credible high-profile political opponents as he prepared to run for re-election in March, but would work to try to create a more balanced political system.
Putin, whom critics have accused of using state TV, the courts and the police to demonize and marginalize the liberal opposition, said earlier this month he would run for re-election in March 2018 - a contest he seems sure to win comfortably and extend his grip on power into a third decade.
But in a sign the former KGB officer is keen to strengthen his role as a father of the nation figure rather than as a party political figure, Putin said he planned to run as an independent candidate and garner support from more than one party.
The ruling United Russia party has traditionally backed Putin and is likely to do so again this time, but Putin clearly wants to generate a higher turnout by styling himself as someone who is above the often grubby fray of Russian party politics.
Putin said it was too early to set out his electoral program, but named priority issues, aside from helping forge what he called a flexible political system, as nurturing a high-tech economy, improving infrastructure, healthcare, education, productivity and increasing people's real incomes.
Putin, 65, has been in power, either as president or prime minister, since 2000, longer than veteran Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and outstripped only by dictator Josef Stalin.
With an approval rating of around 80 percent if, as expected, he wins what would be a fourth presidential term, he will be eligible to serve another six years until 2024, when he turns 72.
Putin said he was aware he faced no real competition.
"The political environment, like the economic environment, needs to be competitive," Putin told an audience of more than 1,600 Russian and foreign reporters gathered in a Moscow conference hall for his annual news conference.
"I will strive for us to have a balanced political system."
He said he regretted the lack of competition, but accused his political opponents of failing to come up with any positive ideas to tackle Russia's problems.
"It's important not to just make noise on public squares and speak about the regime," said Putin.
"It's important to propose something to make things better. But when you start to compare what the leaders of the opposition are proposing, especially the leaders of the non-systemic (liberal) opposition, there are a lot of problems."
Opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who is unlikely to be allowed to run against Putin due to what he says is a trumped up criminal conviction, posted an instant riposte on social media. He said he had launched his own program this week but accused Putin of doing his best to ignore it.
(Reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin, Denis Pinchuk, Jack Stubbs, Christian Lowe, Maria Tsvetkova, Dmitry Solovyov, Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber, Andrey Ostroukh, Katya Golubkova, Polina Nikolskaya, Gleb Stolyarov, Oksana Kobzeva, Maria Kiselyova, Andrew Osborn; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Christian Lowe)