Skip to main content

Putin defends Russia's record on freedom of speech

By Laura Smith-Spark, CNN
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Thu April 25, 2013
An elderly woman watches President Vladimir Putin's televised question and answer session in Moscow, on April 25, 2013.
An elderly woman watches President Vladimir Putin's televised question and answer session in Moscow, on April 25, 2013.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Putin says the Boston tragedy should motivate countries to work together
  • Vladimir Putin denies the use of "Stalinist tools" to limit freedoms in Russia in a televised session
  • "No one puts anyone in prison for political reasons," says the Russian president
  • Putin says U.S. actions have been factor in a "cooling off" of Moscow-Washington relations

(CNN) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday defended his government's record on free speech and rejected a claim it uses "Stalinist" methods, a day after two international rights groups issued scathing reports.

Putin was put on the spot during an annual televised call-in session in Moscow. It was his first since he was elected to a third term as president last May and lasted close to five hours.

Journalist Alexey Venedictov, who is editor in chief of the Echo of Moscow radio station, asked Putin if Russia can use "Stalinist tools" if it wants to be an advanced, modern state.

"I don't think we can see Stalinist elements here," Putin responded.

Putin talks about Boston bombing suspect
Putin critic's trial resumes in Russia

Stalin is recalled for "the personality cult and mass violation of law, reprisals, prison camps -- we see nothing like that in Russia today and I hope we will never see that again. Our people will never allow that to happen again," he said.

"But that doesn't mean we should have no discipline, no law and order -- and all people in Russia should be equal before the law."

That includes the women in the punk band Pussy Riot, Putin said.

"No one puts anyone in prison for political reasons, for their political views. They get punished for violating the law. Everybody should observe the law."

Three Pussy Riot members were convicted last year of hooliganism for performing a song critical of Putin in a Russian Orthodox cathedral, in a brief but provocative protest action. Two are still in prison following the controversial trial.

The reports published Wednesday by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch both outlined a deterioration in the freedom of speech, citing a heavy clampdown on critics and activists

Human Rights Watch said the government has "unleashed a crackdown on civil society unprecedented in the country's post-Soviet history" in the 12 months since Putin regained the presidency.

"The authorities have introduced a series of restrictive laws, harassed, intimidated, and in several cases imprisoned political activists, interfered in the work of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and sought to cast government critics as clandestine enemies, thereby threatening the viability of Russia's civil society," it said.

Putin told the audience it is OK to have demonstrations, "but they should be legal" and shouldn't interfere with other people's lives.

Controls of the Internet are needed only to limit access to child pornography, pedophilia and education on "suicide activities," Putin said.

Putin said non-governmental organizations are welcome in Russia -- and play a useful role in exposing local abuses of power -- but those that receive foreign funding and are involved in political affairs should declare where the money came from and what it is spent on.

The two rights groups were critical of new laws which, Human Rights Watch said, "clearly seek to limit, or even end, independent advocacy and other NGO work."

The president also was asked about the trial for embezzlement of prominent Kremlin critic and opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, which resumed Wednesday in the northern city of Kirov. Navalny, who's also a popular anti-corruption blogger, says the charges are politically motivated.

Putin responded that "people who fight corruption have to be completely honest themselves ... if someone accuses other people of stealing, it doesn't mean he's above the law himself."

International relations

Putin urged closer cooperation between different countries' security services in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings.

On two occasions -- in March and late September 2011 -- Russian authorities asked U.S authorities to investigate one of the bombing suspects, Tamerlan Tsarnaev. FBI agents on Wednesday interviewed his parents in Dagestan, in Russia's North Caucasus region.

"This tragedy should motivate us to work closer together," Putin said. "If we combine our efforts we will not suffer blows like that."

Questioned about his country's external ties, Putin acknowledged that there has been "some cooling off" in Russia's relationship with the United States since the Iraq War, which Moscow opposed.

Putin also pointed to other U.S. actions as factors in the deterioration of relations between Moscow and Washington.

He highlighted the decision of U.S. lawmakers to pass the December 2012 Magnitsky Act, a law that imposes visa bans on and freezes the assets of 18 Russian officials believed to be connected to the death in prison of whistle-blowing Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.

"Why did they do this? Nobody knows the answer to that question," Putin said.

Russia's lawmakers responded to the Magnitsky list with their own list, slapping similar sanctions on 18 Americans it called rights violators.

Putin also said he is grateful for the Obama administration's support of Russia's entry to the World Trade Organization but questioned why it still has Cold War-era legislation -- the so-called Jackson-Vanik amendment -- governing its trade relations with Russia.

The United States has waived the legislation every year since 1994, but it still violates World Trade Organization rules requiring members of the body to give one another permanent normal trade relations.

NATO's engagement in the Libya conflict also led to cooler relations, Putin said.

The session was Putin's 11th televised question-and-answer conference, according to Russian state-run broadcaster RT.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Tethered to an IV drip, 71-year-old Shin Young Ja lies under a thin fleece blanket, nursing a broken back and wracked with survivor's guilt.
updated 7:23 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Family members of the missing passengers are pinning slim hopes on floundering air pockets.
updated 12:14 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
An Iranian mother slaps and then forgives her 17-year old son's murderer in dramatic scenes at the gallows.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
An "extraordinary" video shows what looks like the largest and most dangerous gathering of al Qaeda in years.
updated 8:30 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Explore each side's case, reconstructed from Pistorius' court affidavit and the prosecution's case during last year's bail hearing.
updated 8:37 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Mentions of the 1989 Tiananmen Square student protests or political reform are still censored in China.
updated 5:34 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
The Hadza are one of the last communities of hunter-gatherers in the world -- but losing their land.
updated 9:22 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
In choosing to change a traditional practice, Francis is being as radical as Jesus was in his own time.
updated 7:13 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Too weak. Can't handle pressure. Unattractive to sponsors. Susie Wolff has heard it all.
updated 11:56 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Browse through images you don't always see on news reports from CNN teams around the world.
updated 8:30 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
It's like finding a needle in a universe-wide haystack. Researchers have located a planet roughly the size of Earth that could be habitable.
updated 5:40 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Dubai, long champion of all things biggest, longest and most expensive, will soon have some competition from a neighboring country.
ADVERTISEMENT