MOSCOW (Reuters) - Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, seeking to return to the presidency in an election next month, said on Thursday large Russian companies privatized "dishonestly" in the 1990s should pay a fee to win public acceptance for the deals.
"We need to close the period of the '90s, of what, speaking honestly, was dishonest privatization," Putin said in a speech to a business group representing big businesses, which account for two-thirds of Russia's economy.
"This should be a one-off contribution, or something like that. We should think about something like that."
Putin's comments to the Russian Federation of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs (RSPP), while made almost as an aside, appeared to mark an attempt to rally public support for him in the March 4 election.
Opinion polls show Putin on course to win a first-round majority, but political newcomer Mikhail Prokhorov - a metals tycoon worth an estimated $18 billion - is challenging communist Gennady Zyuganov for second place.
Prokhorov made his billions as partner of Vladimir Potanin, who was involved in organizing the 'loans for shares' auctions of the mid-1990s and secured control of Norilsk Nickel, the world's largest nickel and palladium producer, at a bargain price.
Prokhorov sold his stake in Norilsk Nickel for an estimated $14 billion before the 2008 financial crash but continues to control aluminum, gold and banking assets. He has stepped back from a hands-on management role to focus on politics.
"We must close this theme. What we have to do is secure the social legitimacy of private property, and social confidence in business," said Putin, addressing what is widely known as the "oligarchs' trade union" at a luxury Moscow hotel.
Prokhorov, who chairs the business group's committee on labor affairs, left the room before Putin's speech.
(Reporting by Douglas Busvine; Editing by Susan Fenton)