MOSCOW (AFP) - President Vladimir Putin on Thursday backed a tough bill making it illegal for Americans to adopt Russian children in a reprisal for a new US human rights law.
But he also used the first major press conference of his third term to deny running an “authoritarian system” in which all branches of power and most facets of society closely followed the dictates of Kremlin rule.
The controversial legislation, which would end around 1,000 adoptions a year, is the latest sign of the rapid decline in Russia-US relations since Putin’s election in March.
The bill also includes a clause banning any Russian non-government organisations that are involved in politics and receive funding from the United States.
The State Duma lower house of parliament is due to vote on the bill in its final reading on Friday before it passes to the upper chamber and then for the president’s signature.
Even senior government members such as Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have come out against the measure and some media commentators had expected Putin to show a rarely-seen humanitarian streak by watering it down.
But the Russian strongman indicated he would sign the ban into law.
“I understand that this was an emotional response by the State Duma, but I think that it was appropriate,” Putin said.
His comments came as the latest reminder of the chilling of relations between the former Cold War foes - a frost that kept President Barack Obama from visiting Russia last year.
Much of the latest mistrust stems from Putin’s often-repeated belief that Washington was responsible for inciting mass protests last winter against the former KGB agent’s return to Russia’s top office.
But modern Russia’s longest-serving politician also used specific examples of US court cases involving his countrymen, which he said showed up the failures of the Western justice system.
The disputed legislation is dubbed the Dima Yakovlev bill after a Russian child who suffocated in a locked car during the summer heat in the United States in 2008.
Putin complained especially bitterly that US courts had acquitted several Americans of manslaughter charges following the death of Russian children in their care.
“The judges will not even let us attend (the US trials) as observers,” Putin said during the four-and-a-half-hour event at Moscow’s World Trade Centre.
Russia’s legislation came after Obama last week signed into law the Magnitsky Act - a measure paying tribute to a Russian lawyer who died in custody in Moscow in 2009 after blowing the whistle on a $235 million police embezzlement scheme.
Putin said his aides had informed him that Magnitsky had “died of a heart attack and not of torture”.
The United States “switched one anti-Russian, anti-Soviet law with another one,” he fumed. “This poisons relations.”
He also argued that the United States had no moral right to pass judgement on Russia’s legal system.
“They themselves have plenty of problems,” Putin said. “I have already talked about this: listen, Abu Ghraib... Guantanamo.
“And what’s more they don’t just hold them in prison without charge, they hold them in shackles, like in the medieval times.”
Putin was equally emotive when asked about his purported authoritarian tendencies.
“If I considered an authoritarian or totalitarian system preferable, I would have simply changed the constitution,” he said. “It was easy enough to do.”
The press conference coincided with news of a decision by a Moscow judge to reduce the prison sentence of one of Putin’s fiercest critics by two years.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky - founder of the now-defunct Yukos oil group who funded the opposition before being arrested and jailed on tax charges in 2004 - is now set to be released in 2014.
Putin denied having a change of heart about Khodorkovsky or putting pressure on the court to release his old rival as a gesture of good will to the West.
“I want everyone to hear this - I had no effect on the work of the law enforcement authorities and the courts,” he said.
The conference crowned weeks of speculation about Putin’s health following his decision not to follow his recent foreign travel schedule.
But Putin looked strong and in control as he rattled off economic statistics without pausing and defended his brand of iron-willed rule.
“Concerning my health, I will just give the traditional answer: in your dreams,” Putin joked.
He only appeared to become defensive when asked about his two adult daughters - a subject off-limits to all media. “Everything is fine with my children,” Putin snapped. “I am proud of them.”