By Gleb Bryanski
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Vladimir Putin said he would not plunge Russia into stagnation in a third presidential term but offered stability for what he warned would be a long and painful period of global turbulence.
Putin, who ruled Russia since 2000 as both president and prime minister, looks set to win the March election but is facing a growing wave of public discontent after a contested parliamentary vote last month.
His critics liken the 59-year-old prime minister, who has dominated politics in both positions and has no serious rivals in the forthcoming vote, to Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev who presided over a period of stagnation in 1970s.
"In the modern world stability is an asset which can only be earned by hard work, by showing openness to change and readiness for thought-out, calculated reforms," Putin wrote in the pro-government daily Izvestia on Monday, adding that stability "has nothing in common with stagnation."
In an article which opponents said was short on specifics, he said he supported neither "subversives" who want rapid change nor "self-satisfied gentlemen" who favour the status quo.
Russia was threatened by bankruptcy and disintegration when he took over, he said, referring to an economic crisis and separatist conflicts in Chechnya after the Soviet Union's collapse and saying the current situation would have seemed then like "superoptimistic science fiction."
Now the challenge was to find ways to boost Russia's growth, he said, adding that he knew which of his policies were wrong and needed adjustment without going into details.
He made no direct mention of the biggest political protests of his rule by demonstrators who say his rule has been characterized by corruption, weak institutions and nepotism.
But he said society's readiness to apply "the highest standards of life and democracy to Russia" was itself proof of the success of his policies.
Fitch Ratings agency downgraded Russia's outlook to "Stable" from "Positive" on Monday saying it was "unclear how the country's leadership will respond to the unexpected wave of protests," which increased uncertainty in the country.
Tens of thousands of people rallied in Moscow on December 24 and the opposition plans new rally on February 4.
President Dmitry Medvedev submitted a bill on the direct election of governors to parliament on Monday in a bid to respond to the protests by reversing a 2004 decision by Putin seen by critics as his most serious attack on democracy.
Putin, who made regional governors appointed by the president, did not mention Medvedev's initiative in what his opponents said was one of several glaring omissions.
"What is interesting in this article is not what he talks about but what he does not talk about," said opposition politician Vladimir Ryzhkov.
"He does not talk about a growing wealth gap, capital outflows, an increase in corruption and the enrichment of his friends."
Putin said he regretted that the pre-election debate focused on political "renewal" but did not touch on the post-election course, calling for a "broad dialogue about the future."
"Let's first talk about the election fraud," said opposition Yabloko party leader Sergei Mitrokhin.
"The society he wants to have a dialogue with is asking precisely this question. He is offering a dialogue about something else, dodging the question."
Putin said Russia would soon be hit by a new global economic crisis and touted his achievements as a crisis manager who steered the country through a time of low oil prices in 2008-09.
"The world is entering a period of turbulence. This period will be lengthy and painful. There should be no illusions about it," Putin wrote.
Alluding to the United States and the European Union, Putin said the global economic centers generated problems and risks instead of serving as "locomotives of development."
In a clear reference to the popular uprisings that swept through the Middle East Putin said "destructive forces" were acting in different parts of the world with the help of countries which were "trying to export democracy."
Putin also appealed to Russia's emerging middle class, seen as the driver for the protests, while saying the group, which he estimated at 20 to 30 percent of the population, should incorporate people like teachers and medical staff, considered to be among his core supporters.
"The middle class are the people who can choose policies, their level of education lets them consciously pick candidates, not just vote 'with their hearts'," Putin wrote, in an ironic reference to the 1996 campaign slogan of his predecessor Boris Yeltsin.
Addressing a major criticism of his rule, that Russia's economy remains far too dependent on oil revenues, Putin said "the initiative of the people" should be the main driver for growth rather than oil, calling on Russians to step up self-governance, entrepreneurship and charitable activities.
Oil and gas still provide nearly half of all Russia's budget revenues and attempts to diversify the economy have been hampered by red-tape and corruption which scare potential entrepreneurs from non-energy sectors.
"We will lose out if we only rely on decisions of bureaucrats, large investors and state corporations," Putin wrote. "We will lose out if we encourage the passive position of the people."
(Additional reporting by Maria Tsvetkova and Darya Korsunskaya; editing by Philippa Fletcher)