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Putin shows gift for banter, sarcastic brush-offs

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Vladimir Putin’s four-hour performance at the Kremlin on Thursday mixed flirtatious banter with metaphors about snot and showed a gift for sarcastic brush-offs worthy of a stand-up comedian.

Putin twice referred to a runny nose during the annual presidential news conference -- to dismiss rumors about his personal wealth and to discuss the pressures of public office.

Newspaper reports about his alleged fortune were just rubbish, said Putin, “excavated from someone’s nose and then spread on those bits of paper”.

Explaining how he worked his guts out “like a galley slave” for eight years in the Kremlin, Putin said leaders must take firm decisions and not wobble in the face of adversity.

“Heads of state have no right to whinge, or drool for any reason... If they are going to slobber and blow snot and say things are bad, bad, then that’s how it will be,” Putin said.

The Russian was also sympathetic towards U.S. President George W. Bush. “Sometimes you have to make decisions that nobody else can make... Do you think Bush has it easy?” he said.

Many Russian journalists held up signs to attract Putin’s attention in the Round Hall of the Kremlin packed with hundreds of domestic and international reporters.

When one young woman said she had a golden heart to present to him on Valentine’s Day, Putin invited her to step down from her seat and pass it on to his officials.

Putin seemed to be thinking about European bodies, and not of the institutional kind, when another asked about a news article alleging Russia’s gas giant Gazprom was eating into Europe’s body.

“Why are the Americans so worried about a European body? Maybe because they want to tear themselves away from it, nice body that it is,” he said, laughing and making generous hand gestures to illustrate his point.

To illustrate her question about demographics, another woman said she personally would like to have a child.

“Why are you asking me?” Putin shot back to applause from his audience, many of them regional Russian reporters who clapped enthusiastically at Putin’s quips.

But there was no whiff of attraction when it came to a question about U.S. presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton and her comment that former KGB officers can’t have souls.

“A state official must at least have brains,” he snapped, one of several occasions when his easy-going facade slipped.

Asked about the guarantees about the rouble, Putin turned on the reporter. “What do you want? Do you want me to eat soil from a flower pot? Make an oath on blood?”

Spitting out the Russian acronym for the OSCE’s election watchdog, that sounded very close to ‘bitch’ in English, he said Russia would not take lessons on democracy from Western observers.

“Well, let them rather teach their own wives to cook soup.”

Reporting by Conor Sweeney