By Timothy Heritage
ST PETERSBURG, Russia (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin sought to reassure foreign investors on Thursday that Russia was committed to liberal reforms and privatization and signaled to opponents that he would not allow protests to develop into civil unrest.
Addressing concerns that his return to the presidency after four years will stymie liberal reforms, Putin told an investment forum in St Petersburg that he would tackle corruption and try to reduce Russia's reliance on energy exports.
"We have worked out an entire program of large-scale reform. It has received broad public support. I see its fulfillment as my primary task as president," Putin said in an opening address the forum.
Privatization, he said, must be fair and honest - a reference to deals in the past that allowed a few businessmen to amass wealth and power.
Putin described Russia as a strong country capable of withstanding another global economic crisis, and made clear Moscow would carry out reforms on its own terms.
He laced his speech with comparisons to other countries which he portrayed as economically unstable and in crisis.
The former KGB spy was elected president with almost two-thirds of the votes in March, despite the biggest protests against him since he first rose to power in 2000.
His support has remained strong outside the big cities, where protests have faded but not died since his election win, and parliament has drastically increased the size of fines that can be imposed on protesters who violate public order.
Making clear he would not allow the protests to go too far, Putin said: "Thirst for change is doubtless the engine of progress but it is becomes counter-productive and dangerous if it leads to the destruction of civil peace."
The 59-year-old leader reasserted his commitment to a sound fiscal policy, a floating currency and free capital flows in his first speech to investors since returning to the Kremlin.
"Russia not only needs a deficit-free budget but a budget with a reserve of resilience," Putin said.
He also said Russia would not impose restrictions on capital flows. Some $80 billion left the country last year.
Putin said that Russia was prepared to deal with any fallout from the euro zone's sovereign debt crisis, and stood ready to reactivate a range of measures deployed to mitigate the financial crash of 2008-09.
(Additional reporting by Douglas Busvine, Steve Gutterman and Gleb Bryanski)