POSTED: Thursday, April 25, 2013 - 7:00am
UPDATED: Thursday, April 25, 2013 - 7:04am
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, his first since he was elected to a third term as president last May.
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.
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."
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.