MOSCOW, Oct 25 (Reuters) President Vladimir Putin told Russians today he would retain political influence after he steps down in 2008, but stopped short of defining what role he might take on.
Putin, in a live TV phone-in, stuck by his commitment not to tinker with the constitution and stay on for a third successive term from 2008 ''even though I like the work''.
But he went on: ''Even after I no longer have presidential powers I think that ... I will be able to preserve the most important thing that is dear to any politician: your trust.
''Using this, we can together influence life in our country and guarantee that it develops in a continuous manner,'' the 54-year-old Putin said.
Putin, a former spy now hugely popular in Russia, though accused by liberals of undermining democratic values, has said he reserves the right to name the person he wants to succeed him -- making that person's election a virtual certainty in 2008.
First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov are possible successors, although many commentators say a surprise candidate could still emerge some time next year.
Soberly dressed and emphatic in his replies, Putin exuded a ''man-of-the-people'' image in a show extending well over two hours, fielding questions on economic prospects, social welfare, pensions, transport infrastructure and the environment.
He was satisfied with economic growth, forecast at 6.6 per cent this year, and said inflation -- coming down to single digits -- was slowing though ''not as well as we want it to''.
He told a questioner in the Far East that investment would improve poor roads and assured a woman ecologist he was seeking a balance between development and conserving natural resources.
He highlighted the car and aviation industries as key areas for development. In a rare venture into foreign policy, he told a resident near the Sea of Japan he shared his concern over this month's nuclear test in nearby North Korea while saying the communist state should not be forced into a corner.
And, to the delight of residents of Kondopoga on the Finnish border, scene of violent attacks on Chechen traders last month, he had rough words for local authorities, saying: ''We don't want authorities who cannot protect their citizens.'' Putin was clearly more at ease handling questions from his own people than he is on foreign trips when he often comes across as prickly and defensive when facing critical questions.
At a European Union-Russia summit in Finland last week, diplomats said he told other leaders Italy had no right to lecture him on organised crime and Moscow had nothing to learn about tackling corruption from Spain, where local mayors are implicated in bribery scandals.
SUCCESSION -- HOT TOPIC But, with the presidential succession Russia's hottest topic, it was his comments about his own post-2008 plans that seemed most likely to come under scrutiny by commentators.
Theories about what job Putin may be eying after he steps down range from the post of prime minister to heading Russia's majority party and thus becoming speaker of parliament.
Other reports say he could be appointed to head Gazprom, Russia's huge state-controlled gas monopoly.
Analysts say Putin does not want to become a ''lame duck'' president by disclosing too soon the name of the person he wants to succeed him.
Putin's proudest boast is that, while many people still live in deep poverty, he has brought stability and put more money in the average Russian's pocket.
Commentators say they expect him to groom someone with a similar civil service background rather than a political one and a person likely also to find favour with the security, defence and intelligence community that has become Putin's power base.
Some analysts do not rule out a return by Putin to the Kremlin after a break, as allowed by the constitution.
REUTERS BDP RN1650