By Alexei Anishchuk
VALDAI, Russia (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday he may seek re-election in 2018 and charted a conservative course drawn from Orthodox Christian values, saying the West was not an example for Russia.
The former KGB spy also defended tough laws he has signed since returning to the Kremlin in May 2012 after four years as prime minister, including legislation critics say in effect bans gays from publicly expressing their sexual orientation.
Asked at a conference whether he might seek a new term as president when his six-year mandate expires in 2018, Putin said: "I do not rule it out."
Asked by Reuters for clarification, he later said: "It's only 2013 today, there are another five years ahead of us."
Putin, 60, has been in power since 2000 and a fourth term would keep him there until 2024 - longer than Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev's 18-year stay but still short of Josef Stalin's three-decade dictatorship.
Putin made his comments to an audience of Russia experts that also included a number of opposition leaders who took part in protests against his rule last year, demonstrations that have dwindled since the president took a firm line against dissent.
The opposition leaders hailed their inclusion as a sign that Putin may be open to dialogue after months of repressive tactics, but said it may also reflect divisions between relative liberals and hawks in Putin's inner circle.
"The Kremlin has different towers," said protest leader Gennady Gudkov.
"There are towers aimed at ... group repression and there are those that understand that this is a dead-end path."
Alexei Navalny, whose strong showing in an election for Moscow mayor this month revived the flagging protest movement, snubbed the Kremlin's invitation. He has a five-year sentence for theft hanging over him that he says was politically motivated by the Kremlin.
OPPONENTS PUT QUESTIONS TO PUTIN
Other Kremlin opponents at the annual meeting of the Valdai Group, which is dominated by foreign experts on Russia, put questions to Putin. Some criticized him, particularly over the anti-gay propaganda law he defended at the conference.
They regard it as one of a series of repressive measures introduced by Putin to clamp down on dissent and shore up support among a traditional voter base since facing protests.
But Putin told the conference: "Any minority's right to be different must be respected, but the right of the majority must not be questioned."
He said Western governments should look to problems at home, and not get involved in the others' business, including in Syria, where Moscow has supplied the government with arms.
"We see how many countries of the Euro-Atlantic alliance have denied their roots, including Christian values," he said.
"This model is aggressively trying to be imposed all over the world and I am convinced this is a direct path to degradation and ... a profound demographic and moral crisis."
Putin suggested the law banning "gay propaganda" was a response to gay marriage gaining acceptance in the West, where he said "families with many children are placed on the same level as same-sex partnerships, and belief in God on the same level as belief in Satan."
The law, which imposes fines and jail sentences of up to 15 days on Russians or deportation for foreigners, has prompted calls for a boycott of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics - where Putin wants to show off Russia as a modern state.
In an off-color remark, Putin fired back at Western criticism of the legislation, saying the former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi would not have faced trial for having sex with a minor if he were gay.
Putin also held out the prospect of an amnesty for protesters on trial charged with provoking mass disorder at a demonstration on May 6, 2012, the eve of his inauguration.
But his words did little to impress opposition figures.
"There should be no illusions here, everything should be backed up by action," said Ilya Ponomaryov, an opposition lawmaker and protest leader.
(Reporting by Alexei Anishchuk; Writing by Alissa de Carbonnel; Editing by Timothy Heritage and Robin Pomeroy)