Russia's paramount leader, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, hinted on Monday he would return to the presidency in 2012 for six more years and said democracy protesters marching without permission deserved to be beaten.

Asked by the Kommersant daily newspaper in an interview whether Russia's 2012 presidential election did not worry him because he had already decided it, Putin replied:

No, it interests me like...I wanted to say like everyone, but in fact more than everyone else. But I don't want to make a fetish out of it.

Putin ruled as president from 2000 to 2008 before handing the presidency to his chosen successor Dmitry Medvedev, in order to observe a law banning a third consecutive term.

However Putin will be free to run again in 2012 for a newly extended term of six years.

The most important thing is that these problems of 2012 don't derail us from the path of stable development, Putin added in the interview.

Kommersant said it was conducted during a 180-km (110-mile) drive in his bright yellow Lada Kalina car between the cities of Khabarovsk and Chita in Russia's Far East.

Putin's remarks in the extended interview with his longtime favourite journalist Andrei Kolesnikov were immediately seized upon by some Moscow commentators as further evidence that he would return to the Kremlin in two years time.

The Ekho Moskvy radio station, which gives airtime to opposition views, began polling listeners on whether they backed another Putin presidency.

Some 86 percent said no, a result which reflected the station's Moscow middle-class audience. But it is not typical of average Russians, among whom Putin remains popular, polls show.

In Monday's interview, Putin robustly defended police crackdowns on pro-democracy protesters in recent months. He said those who marched must obey current laws requiring them to seek advance permission from local authorities.

If you get (permission), you go and march, Putin said. If you don't - you have no right to. Go without permission, and you will be hit on the head with batons. That's all there is to it.

Moscow authorities this month suddenly fenced off Triumph Square, a popular rallying point for opposition protesters, saying they planned to build an underground car park.

Opposition groups said the previously unannounced car park plan was a ruse to stop protests.

Putin said he was unaware of the square's closure and reinforced this by using a popular Soviet Communist Party expression: Believe me, I don't know about that...I give you my honest word as a party member.

Commenting on foreign relations, Putin said he really wants to believe in a warming of relations between Washington and Moscow promoted by U.S. President Barack Obama.

But he warned there were still factors which could upset the so-called reset in ties between the two Cold War superpowers.

Chief among them was what Putin termed the re-arming of U.S. ally Georgia following its 2008 war with Russia. A long-term rearming of Georgia is going on, he said. What for ? But it is for real. We already see it.

Putin also criticised U.S. plans for anti-missile systems in central Europe, saying that although Washington had abandoned plans to station missile batteries in Poland, there could still be a radar base in the Czech Republic and other countries in the region might host elements of the system.

So where is this 'reset' ?, Putin asked. We don't see it yet in this area.

Putin also claimed he was taken by surprise to learn of a second court case which started last year against jailed former billionaire oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia's most high-profile prisoner.

Khodorkovsky's YUKOS oil empire was destroyed on Kremlin orders in 2003 allegedly for fraud and tax evasion; supporters say it was because Khodorkovsky had dared to challenge Putin for political power and the Kremlin wanted to teach oligarchs a lesson.

(Editing by Angus MacSwan)