, MOSCOW, Dec 16 – Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Thursday issued a chilling message to jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and warned against extremism as he held a presidential-style question session with Russians.
Mixing folksy chat with Russians across the country with tough statements in a glitzy televised show, Putin also talked up the state of the Russian economy two years after the economic crisis broke.
"I believe that a thief must be in prison," Putin said in a stunningly terse statement when asked to comment on the case of Russia’s former richest man Khodorkovsky.
Khodorkovsky, already serving an eight-year sentence in a case that has become a rallying point for Russian liberals, is awaiting the verdict in his second trial on charges of embezzlement.
In typical style, Putin was citing a famous phrase by Soviet-era singer Vladimir Vysotsky. "We must operate based on the fact that Mr Khodorkovsky’s guilt has been proven in court," Putin added.
The verdict was on Wednesday postponed until December 27 and Putin’s harsh comments immediately sparked fears among his defence team the fallen magnate has little chance of being acquitted.
"This speech has an entire series of consequences," attorney Karina Moskalenko told the Interfax news agency. "It will lead to a conviction and (speak of) the lack of the independence of the court," the attorney said.
The question was posed by a Russian woman from Siberia who sarcastically indicated her question would not concern Putin’s two dogs or other softball matters, a rare occasion on Russia’s tightly-controlled state television.
In another jab at Russia’s fractured opposition, Putin issued a warning to liberal politicians not to criticize the state’s handling of the riots.
"Otherwise, our liberal intelligentsia will have to shave off their little beards, put on helmets and come out on the streets to fight against radicals," he said.
Putin spoke after some 5,000 ultra-nationalists and football hooligans clashed last week with the police outside the Kremlin walls following the deadly shooting of a football fan by a Muslim suspect.
"There is a need to suppress all the manifestations of extremism on all sides," Putin said. "We are children of one country."
Putin’s stamina-busting question session has become a feature of the winter season over the last years, with the Russian strongman holding court on everything from bread-and-butter issues to foreign policy.
Analysts say the carefully stage-managed event, which has lasted up to four hours in previous years, is designed to boost Putin’s image and show he remains in control despite various calamities that befall Russia regularly.
Putin was asked whether he would want to sing a duet with a star, in a reference to his performance of Louis Armstrong’s song "Blueberry Hill" before an A-List audience this month.
The call-in show will also be closely watched over whether Putin drops any hints over his future plans to return to the Kremlin.
Putin ceded the Kremlin to President Dmitry Medvedev in 2008, becoming a powerful prime minister and speculation is buzzing that he may be plotting a return as head of state in 2012 elections.
The sheer magnitude of the event and its blanket media coverage is usually seen as a reaffirmation of Putin’s status as the true Russian number one, even after handing the presidency to Medvedev.
The gigantic set did little to dispel impressions of a presidential-style set piece, watched by a studio audience and row after row of young workers faithfully typing up over one million questions phoned and sent in.
Two years after the economic crisis broke, Putin also said Russia will post growth of 3.8 percent in 2010 and the economy will see a return to pre-crisis levels in the first half of 2012.
"We are finishing the year in an entirely satisfactory way," he said. "Ordinary people are already feeling a turn for the better."