By Douglas Busvine
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin jokingly called former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin a "slacker" on Thursday for refusing to rejoin his government, as the two jousted on live television over how to revive a weakening economy.
"I offered - he refused," Putin told a live call-in show after Kudrin took the microphone to criticise his administration's economic policies. Smiling, Putin added: "He's a slacker and doesn't want to work."
The good-natured exchange indicated that, although Putin remains on good personal terms with Kudrin, who served as finance minister for 11 years before resigning in September 2011, their economic views remain far apart.
Since quitting, Kudrin has publicly sympathised with opposition protests over alleged ballot fraud in the ensuing parliamentary and presidential elections that secured Putin's return for a third Kremlin term.
His presence in the audience of Putin's annual question-and-answer session and his tough questions were probably stage-managed to show that Putin could tolerate hard questioning.
Kudrin, a fiscal hawk and economic liberal, told Putin it was important to find political consensus and take into account the concerns of people who want to invest money and create jobs.
"As of today, we do not have a programme to wean the economy off its dependence on oil," Kudrin said, adding that Russia's economic slowdown could be put down largely to domestic factors rather than weak export demand.
He said growth in Russia's $2 trillion economy slowed to 1.1 percent in the first quarter of this year - its weakest since of 2009 - even as government spending grew and pay rises outpaced growth in labour productivity.
Putin answered Kudrin's remarks by saying his government's primary task was to ensure the prosperity of the Russian people and that pay and pensions increases had been justified.
Kudrin "was the best finance minister - but would not be the best minister for social affairs", Putin said.
In separate comments, Putin said that the government's economic policies were fundamentally on the right track. He said what critics describe as excessively strict monetary policy was "justified", and supported a fiscal rule introduced last year that caps government borrowing based on a historical oil price.
Sources have said that Putin offered the position of central bank governor to Kudrin, but was refused. Putin eventually chose his most senior economic adviser, Elvira Nabiullina, to take the helm of the central bank in June.
(editing by Elizabeth Piper)