Page last updated at 21:53 GMT, Thursday, 29 May 2008 22:53 UK

Putin denies Russia rights abuse

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (left) and French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris
Mr Putin has chosen France because it will hold the EU presidency from July

Russian ex-President Vladimir Putin has denied allegations of encroachments on human rights in his country.

"Concerns about the lack of human rights in Russia are strongly exaggerated", he said in France, on his first Western visit as prime minister.

Russia came under strong criticism over its human rights record during Mr Putin's eight years in office.

In Paris, Mr Putin and French leaders also discussed strained EU-Russia ties and co-operation in the energy sector.

Mr Putin held talks with his French counterpart Francois Fillon and also had dinner with President Nicolas Sarkozy - a rare honour for visiting prime ministers.

Although newly named Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is officially in charge of the country, many analysts say much power and influence - particularly on foreign policy matters - lies with his predecessor.

Putin's defence

"All this talk about human rights is often used as an instrument of pressure on Russia, with the aim of achieving some goals that have nothing to do with human rights in Russia," Mr Putin said at a joint news conference with Mr Fillon.

"We listen attentively to conscientious critics and react properly to what they say. We're developing our country and the system of democracy; we give support to civic society and the mass media," he said.

Mr Putin also added that "problems with human rights you have in any country".

The Kremlin has been repeatedly criticised by Western governments and human rights groups for harassing political opposition, stifling independent media and putting pressure on non-governmental organisations.

Detente hopes

In Paris, Mr Putin also discussed plans for a new pact between the EU and Russia which would put an end to two years of acrimony.

"We have agreed that we will work together for the earliest beginning of talks on a new strategic partnership," Mr Putin said.

"We are hoping for a detente in the EU-Russia relationship," Mr Fillon said after the talks.

On Monday, EU member states agreed that negotiations on a co-operation deal with Russia could begin.

The talks are due to be launched at a Siberia summit in June.

France was chosen as Mr Putin's first destination because the country is due to take on the EU presidency on 1 July.

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