MOSCOW-- Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Friday that Russia's government should listen to human rights activists, fight corruption and make sure the courts provide equal protection to all citizens under the law.

Putin was addressing some of the sharpest criticisms of his increasingly authoritarian leadership during 11 years in power.

Seemingly less at ease than usual, he took part in discussions with members of his political party as they opened a two-day congress to determine their program and list of candidates for Dec. 4 parliamentary elections.

The United Russia congress was being watched for a clearer sign that Putin intends to reclaim the presidency next year. Both he and President Dmitry Medvedev are expected to speak Saturday before about 10,000 party delegates at a Moscow sports stadium.

Party member Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a prominent sociologist who studies the Russian elite, said Putin was unlikely to announce his candidacy on Saturday. But if he agreed to head the party's list of candidates, it would signal his intention to run for president.

Putin said he is often criticized by rights activists, "sometimes fairly, sometimes unfairly." Although they tend to draw attention to "problems that don't touch everyday lives," he said, unless Russia addresses these problems the people will feel cut off from their government.

"Whether or not we like the activities of these organizations, we have to show understanding and respond to the tasks or even complaints they present," Putin said.

While he was speaking, police detained a handful of opposition protesters on the street outside.

Under Putin, opposition protests are routinely broken up by police.