By Michael Stott and Gleb Bryanski
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, in power for over 10 years, ruled out a departure from politics on Thursday, telling a questioner: "Don't hold your breath."
The country's most powerful leader made the comment with a smile when asked on his annual televised question and answer session with the Russian people if he would like to leave politics and start a quiet life.
Putin, 57, also said he "will think about" taking part in the 2012 presidential election, when many Russians expect him to return to the Kremlin for a six-year term.
Looking relaxed and confident, Putin said Russia had passed the peak of the economic crisis and reassured callers worried about job security, pensions and living standards.
"The economy has grown by an average of 0.5 percent per month over the last five months," Putin said in the session, broadcast live nationwide by state television and radio. "I'm counting on these positive trends in economic development becoming more significant in the middle of next year."
Putin's eighth annual phone-in entitled "A Conversation with Vladimir Putin. The Sequel" showed the premier back on form after an uncharacteristically subdued performance last year amid the economic crisis.
Commenting on everything from Russia's football performance to the brand value of Lada cars, Putin showed the mastery of detail, firm command, trademark frankness and humor which has made him the country's most popular politician.
An increase in oil prices has pulled the Russian economy back from the brink of collapse this year but despite billions of dollars of government aid, Russia still lags far behind emerging market peers such as Brazil, India and China.
Many questioners asked Putin about their jobs and their pensions, including workers in the town of Pikalyovo, which the premier visited in the summer to help a cement factory threatened with closure and scold its oligarch owner.
"The situation in one-industry towns, including Pikalyovo, is under control," Putin said.
RUSSIAN NOUVEAUX RICHES "A PROBLEM"
Asked why nobody was in jail for allowing the crisis to hit Pikalyovo, the prime minister shot back: "If we put everyone in jail, who would work?"
Putin had harsh words for Russia's new rich, saying the way they flaunted their wealth was wrong, and implicitly condemning a group of young Russians whose Lamborghini and Bugatti luxury sports cars crashed recently in Switzerland.
"The nouveau riche all of a sudden got rich very quickly but cannot manage their wealth without showing it off all the time. Yes, this is our problem," Putin said.
"In Soviet times some of our rich showed off their wealth by having gold teeth put in, preferably at the front. The Lamborghinis and other pricey knickknacks -- they are simply today's gold teeth which are shown off to everybody."
The televised question and answer session was conducted in a specially built Moscow studio with invited guests.
It included video links to Pikalyovo, to an aircraft plant in a Far Eastern city and to the turbine room of the giant Sayano-Shushenskaya hydroelectric dam in Siberia, damaged in an August accident which killed 75.
All questions were screened in advance and access to the Moscow studio and the video link-up locations was by invitation only. Journalists were not given access to the questioners.
Enthusiastic presenters beamed as they counted more than two million questions submitted by phone, internet and text message.
Foreign affairs were barely mentioned in a session dominated by domestic issues.
Putin reassured a grieving widow from the dam about her children's education, calmed factory workers worried about their jobs, joked over his sometimes awkward relationship with the leader of neighboring Belarus and condemned terrorism.
Islamist rebels have claimed responsibility for detonating a bomb under a luxury express train as it traveled from Moscow to St Petersburg last week, derailing and wrecking carriages and killing 26 people, including some senior officials.
Putin said Russia would "break the spine" of terrorism and demanded tough action against "criminals" who attacked their own people. "The threat of terrorism remains very high," he added.
A caller said that an old woman near the train crash site who cared for the victims, lived in horrible conditions and her fence was damaged during rescue work.
"You have a good heart. Just like this old woman. Do not worry, everything will be fine with her," Putin said, adding that Russian Railways had already doubled the old woman's pension and would fix her fence and the house.
Helped by lavish coverage on state media and an absence of credible political opponents, Putin still dominates Russian politics 10 years after he was first picked as a successor by ailing then-president Boris Yeltsin.
Although his ratings have drooped slightly to an eight-month low of 65 percent, down from 72 percent in mid-October, according to the FOM pollster, they remain numbers most politicians would envy after 10 years of rule.
They also outshine those of his hand-picked successor Dmitry Medvedev, who most Russians believe has little real power. It was almost two hours into the question session before Putin mentioned Medvedev's name at all.
He later told a questioner asking about their "tandem" system of government that he and Medvedev worked well together and shared common values.
"We graduated from the same university, had the same teachers, who not only gave us the same knowledge but also a common approach to life. Those common principles allow us to work efficiently today," he said.
(Editing by Ralph Boulton.)