Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin addressed criticisms of his increasingly authoritarian leadership on Friday at a party congress being watched for signs he intends to reclaim the presidency next year.
Putin, who served as president from 2000 to 2008, said Russia's government should listen to human rights activists, fight corruption and make sure the courts provide equal protection to all citizens.
Putin's tone was softer than usual when speaking with members of his United Russia political party as they opened a two-day congress to determine their program and list of candidates for the Dec. 4 parliamentary elections.
He and President Dmitry Medvedev are expected to speak Saturday before about 10,000 party delegates at a Moscow sports stadium.
Party member Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a prominent sociologist who studies the Russian elite, said Putin was unlikely to announce his candidacy for president Saturday. But if he agreed to head the party's list of candidates, it would signal his intention to run for the position in March, she said.
The president technically has more powers than the prime minister in Russia, but Medvedev was Putin's handpicked successor, and Putin has remained the more powerful figure.
The most important purpose of the congress was to strengthen Putin's position as national leader and endorse the link between him and the party, said Lilia Shevtsova, a scholar of Kremlin politics at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
This was illustrated in a video clip posted Friday on the party's website.
"Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin is not only the leader of our party but our overall national leader, the only figure consolidating our society," opera soloist Maria Maksakova, 34, gushed in the video.
The prime minister addressed his critics, although not without a touch of cynicism.
Putin said he is often criticized, "sometimes fairly, sometimes unfairly," by what he described as a "category of people" known as rights activists. Although they tend to draw attention to "problems that don't touch everyday lives," he said, unless Russia addresses these problems the people will feel cut off from their government.
"Whether or not we like the activities of these organizations, we have to show understanding and respond to the tasks or even complaints they present," Putin said.
While he was speaking, police detained a handful of opposition protesters on the street outside. Under Putin, opposition protests are routinely broken up by police.
Opposition leader Sergei Udaltsov, who was among those detained, called on Russians to boycott the elections to protest the barring of all opposition parties.
"It is shameful for Russia in the 21st century to hold mock and anti-constitutional elections," he said.
Putin, who built his popularity on the back of strong economic growth, said Friday that salaries and pensions would continue to grow, and he promised increased funding for education, health care and housing.
But he also cautioned that the government may need to take unpopular steps to cope with the global financial turmoil.
"The task of the government is not only to pour honey into a cup, but sometimes to give bitter medicine," Putin said. "But this should always be done openly and honestly, and then the overwhelming majority of people will understand their government."
Shevtsova, the Carnegie scholar, said Putin could keep Medvedev for a second term if he wanted him to take responsibility for the expected austerity measures, but she said this was highly unlikely. The continuation of the "tandem," with Putin running the country from the No. 2 position of prime minister, was proving too destabilizing.
"In difficult times, the times of trouble which are coming, it is better to grip the power in one fist," she said.
Among the future options being discussed for Medvedev was to become parliament speaker. Kryshtanovskaya said this would raise the profile of the job. United Russia now holds 312 of the 450 seats, and is expected to retain its majority after the elections.
Vladimir Isachenkov contributed to this report.