By Timothy Heritage and Gleb Bryanski
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Vladimir Putin will portray himself in a marathon television phone-in as a man in touch with his country despite nationwide weekend protests and, according to a close aide, he will not skirt difficult questions.
"Taking into account the busy agenda, the past election and future election, this phone-in will be special," Putin spokesman and deputy chief of staff Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
Tens of thousands demonstrated in dozens of cities across Russia over December 4 parliamentary elections, calling for new polls and chanting slogans such as "Down with Putin" and "Russia without Putin." The election saw the majority of Putin's United Russia party slashed, but opponents charge that even that vote was inflated by widespread electoral fraud.
The protests were the biggest since Putin first came to power in late 1999. Though he looks likely to win a March presidential election, criticism on the streets and the Internet has for the first time raised questions about the depth of his popularity.
"It's an unusual situation for Putin," said political analyst Gleb Pavlovsky.
"Before the election he was behaving with a lot of confidence but he's gone silent since the protests. For the first time he's holding his call-in with doubts about whether the majority are with him."
Among dozens of questions sent in online for the Thursday phone-in, most of them about social issues such as pensions, education and healthcare, are at least two about the election and the protests.
State-run television ran ads for the show on Wednesday, with the words "Conversation with Vladimir Putin. Continued" against the background of a rippling Russian tricolor, and showed a web address, telephone and text message numbers.
Voters sent a message to Putin by sharply reducing his ruling United Russia party's majority in the December 4 vote. It will hold 238 seats when the 450-member Duma convenes on December 21, down from the 315 it had held since a 2007 election.
Putin, president from 2000-2008, will seek a new six-year term in the Kremlin in a March 4 election. If he wins, as expected, he could remain in the Kremlin until 2024 if he bids successfully for re-election.
The annual call-in show is one of several choreographed television appearances Putin has used to burnish his image as a strong, effective and caring leader with a detailed knowledge of the huge nation and an interest in each of its citizens.
It is also a show of stamina. Putin takes questions for hours from Russians nationwide, some delivered by groups of people gathered in an auditorium or town square, others relayed in advance by telephone or the Internet.
Ads for the event feature figures such as a priest, a wrestler and the conductor Valery Gergiev, each describing a question he would put to Putin.
Peskov said no time limit had been set and seemed to hint it could be even longer than last year's four-hour, 25-minute marathon -- and more interesting.
He said that nearly half the questions received so far concerned social issues, housing or utilities, but that many questions related to the political situation and Putin would tackle them.
"He never avoids difficult questions," said Peskov.
Last week, Putin accused the United States of stirring up protests and said foreign countries were spending hundreds of millions of dollars to influence Russia elections, but he has not spoken publicly about the big protests on Saturday.
Former first deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, a protest leader whose political party was barred from the election because it was denied registration earlier this year, said he did not believe Putin's performance would be convincing.
"Everyone knows that it is not for real. Everything is prepared, the questions and answers," Nemtsov said.
"He is like a shaken cat now," he said of Putin.
The decline in support for his party and the biggest opposition protests of his rule have put him under pressure to address concerns of Russians who want more political plurality and fear his Kremlin return could hamper economic progress.
CHANGE AT THE DUMA
In a step that appeared aimed at cooling public anger over the election, the longtime State Duma speaker and day-to-day head of United Russia, Boris Gryzlov, said on Wednesday that he would not take his seat in the Duma elected December 4.
As Duma speaker since 2003 and chairman of United Russia's Supreme Council, Gryzlov has been a powerful symbol of a political system dominated by Putin and the party for more than a decade.
"Gryzlov is an absolutely unpopular figure," said political analyst Leonid Radzikhovsky, who likened the former interior minister to "a watchman at a cemetery."
Gryzlov, who turns 61 on Thursday, once encapsulated the party's legislative style for its critics by saying the Duma was "no place for discussions."
His decision to step aside fit into an apparent effort by Putin to set some distance between himself and the party, which has always been less popular than he is. Putin is chairman of United Russia but not a member.
"It's obvious that United Russia has suffered a serious blow, maybe not a formal defeat but a moral one, and of course there will be some changes," said Vladimir Milov, another opposition leader.
But while his decision to step aside was seen as an acknowledgement of United Russia's battered public image and a victory for the protesters, it was unlikely to appease them.
President Dmitry Medvedev has promised that official complaints and lawsuits over the election will be heard, but he and Putin have made clear they do not intend to meet the protesters' demands to throw out the vote and hold a new one.
The Kremlin deflected questions about speculation that Medvedev, who is to switch jobs with Putin next year under a plan they revealed in September, might step down early to let Putin rebuild his own authority by becoming acting president until the March election.
(Additional reporting by Maria Tsvetkova and Lidia Kelly, writing by Timothy Heritage and Steve Gutterman)