Russia’s Vladimir Putin strikes harsh tone during marathon annual news conference


Russia's President Vladimir Putin holds the first major press conference of his third term in power in Moscow, on Dec. 20, 2012. (NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

Russian President Vladimir Putin countered tough questions Thursday about a proposal to ban U.S. adoptions of Russian children by directing harsh criticism at the U.S. government, but he refused to say clearly whether he would approve the legislation.

The proposal, which lawmakers say will be on his desk within a week, is a retaliation for a new U.S. law that takes action against Russian human rights violators. Putin — who appears caught between the actions of hot-headed allies in parliament and members of his cabinet who say the ban would penalize Russian children while doing little to strike back at U.S. lawmakers — called it “an emotional response” but said it was “appropriate.”

“Will I sign it or not? I need to look” at the specific language, he said. “Maybe today or tomorrow, I’ll try to do it.”

During the course of a marathon four-and-a-half-hour news conference that was broadcast live, Putin faced unusually pointed questions intermingled with softballs from friendly reporters from Russia’s remoter regions. The president has made a year-end tradition of the question-and-answer sessions, which have in the past allowed him to portray himself as a hard-edged, detail-oriented manager, equally comfortable reeling off economic statistics and demonstrating his familiarity with fishing, railway and housing matters across the vast country’s nine time zones.

But after a year that saw the rise, then stagnation, of an opposition movement that provided the most serious challenge yet to Putin’s 12-year rule, a new hint of anger crept into the questioning Thursday in a hall packed with more than 1,200 journalists. Unlike in previous years, when most of the questions came from state-owned media outlets and seemed prearranged, Putin’s spokesman also called on several Western reporters and Russian opposition bloggers, who pressed the peeved-looking president on human rights issues. Even many mainstream Russian journalists were newly confrontational.

The Russian president reserved his greatest ire for the United States, which he has often accused of being condescending toward his government. He criticized American officials for what he said was their lax attitude toward the abuse of adopted children and for denying Russian officials the right to monitor those cases.

“I consider it unacceptable,” he said of U.S. officials’ alleged attitudes toward their Russian counterparts. “Do you think it’s normal? Is it normal when someone humiliates you?”

Putin raised questions about U.S. human rights abuses, bringing up Abu Ghraib and the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

“Not only are those prisoners detained without charge, they walk around shackled, like in the Middle Ages,” he said. “Can you imagine if we had anything like this here? They would have eaten us alive a long time ago.”

Russia has been provoked by the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, which President Obama signed into law last week and imposes travel and financial sanctions on Russian officials tied to the 2009 death in Moscow of Magnitsky, a lawyer and tax adviser.

Putin “sincerely felt himself betrayed by the Obama administration. He feels that Obama didn’t do whatever he could to resist the Magnitsky legislation,” said Georgy Bovt, a columnist and political analyst.

On Syria, Putin offered little new but said he felt that Western countries were being overly sanguine about the consequences of the dissolution of the government of President Bashar al-Assad. He pointed to Libya’s deteriorating security situation since the death of longtime leader Moammar Gaddafi and said that Syria would be far worse.

Russia has in recent days mobilized its navy to move toward Syria in case it needs to evacuate Russian citizens there. Putin has been Assad’s strongest international backer.

But if Putin expects chaos to follow Assad’s downfall, he appears to have different expectations for his own legacy. Every journalist at the news conference received a heavy goody bag emblazoned with Putin’s name — and laden with trinkets relating to the Romanov czars.

Separately Thursday, a judge shortened the jail sentence of former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man, who will now be freed in 2014. Khodorkovsky was convicted of tax evasion and fraud, although many activists say he was actually thrown in prison for his anti-Putin political activities.

Asked about the development at the news conference, Putin wished Khodorkovsky “good health” upon his release and said he had nothing to do with the workings of Russia’s court system.

Michael Birnbaum is The Post’s Moscow bureau chief. He previously served as the Berlin correspondent and an education reporter.
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