* Putin backs draft law banning adoptions by Americans
* Dismisses health concerns, say economy in good shape
* Denies he is authoritarian,
* Denies any role in ruling on jailed oil tycoon
By Alexei Anishchuk and Timothy Heritage
MOSCOW, Dec 20 President Vladimir Putin backed a
ban on Americans adopting Russian children on Thursday in a feud
over a U.S. law that aims to punish Russians accused of
violating human rights.
In his first annual news conference since he began a new
six-year term in May, the former KGB spy often struck a hawkish
tone, signalling support for tough retaliation against the
"unfriendly" Magnitsky Act passed by Moscow's former Cold War
enemy, which he said was poisoning relations.
He also held up a court ruling that will free former oil
tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky - a fierce critic of Putin's rule -
from jail two years early in 2014 as evidence that he does not
control the courts.
The 4-1/2-hour performance, broadcast live, was intended to
end speculation about the 60-year-old's health and portray him
as the guarantor of stability in a country that was under Soviet
communist rule two decades ago.
"This is by no means the least successful period in Russia's
history," he said, adding: "Because I love Russia."
"Without irony, I look forward to any future president being
Sitting in an immaculate suit and tie behind a large desk in
front of 1,200 journalists in a Moscow conference centre, Putin
calmly took questions, some of them hostile, on issues from
pensions to the crisis in Syria.
Occasionally sipping tea as journalists frantically waved
their arms in the hope of asking a question, he became most
animated when asked about the legislation signed by President
Barack Obama last week.
The Magnitsky Act, drawn up over concern about the death in
a Russian prison of anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in
2009, will deny visas to Russians accused of human rights abuses
and freeze their assets in the United States.
"This, of course, poisons our relationship," he said of the
Russia's lower house of parliament has prepared a
tit-for-tat law to prevent Americans adopting Russian children
and bar entry to U.S. citizens accused of abusing Russians'
"It is an emotional response by the State Duma, but it is an
appropriate response," Putin said of the draft law.
The dispute threatens efforts by Putin and Obama to improve
their relationship after presidential campaigns in both
countries raised tensions between the countries.
The Kremlin says Obama is likely to visit Russia in the
first half of 2013 but Western diplomats say the U.S. president
will agree to a summit only if he feels progress can be made.
Asked about the conflict in Syria, another irritant in
relations with Western powers that have backed opponents of
President Bashar al-Assad, Putin said Moscow's main concern was
the fate of the country and not that of long-time ally Assad.
He said Moscow wanted to ensure that any solution to the
conflict must prevent the opposition and government forces just
swapping roles and continuing to fight indefinitely.
"We are not concerned about the fate of Assad's regime. We
understand what is going on there," Putin said. "We are worried
about a different thing - 'what next?'"
During his first spell as president from 2000 until 2008,
Putin began a tradition of giving long annual news conferences
to show his grasp of policy detail. The last one, in 2008, ran
for four hours and 40 minutes - slightly longer than Thursday's.
He appeared intent on Thursday on showing he has a firm grip
despite protests against him that at times last winter attracted
tens of thousands of people before fading after he won March's
Critics, including in the United States and Europe, accuse
him of trying to smother dissent by pushing through laws that
they say can be used to stifle opponents.
But Putin said: "I cannot call it authoritarian, I cannot
agree ... I think that order, discipline and following the rule
of law do not contradict democracy."
However, soon after the news conference ended, federal
investigators announced that protest leader Alexei Navalny had
been charged with money laundering and fraud. The
anti-corruption blogger already faces up to 10 years in jail on
theft charges he says are politically motivated.
Critics have also said Putin would only allow Khodorkovsky,
long a thorn in his side, to be freed if he was certain that he
posed no political threat.
While he was addressing the news conference, a court reduced
Khodorkovsky's sentence for money laundering and tax evasion
from 13 to 11 years, meaning he could be freed in October 2014.
Khodorkovsky, now 49, was arrested in 2003. He had appeared
to defy calls by Putin for rich businessmen not to get involved
in politics by flirting with the opposition.
"There was no personal persecution," Putin said. But after
his imprisonment, Khodorkovsky's Yukos oil company was broken up
and sold off, mainly to the state.
Addressing question after question, Putin showed he still
has a command over detail. He dismissed speculation over a back
problem as rumours spread by his opponents.
Critics were scornful of his performance, particularly his
remarks on democracy and the rule of law.
"'Because I love Russia.' But if you respect it too, why do
you treat it like cattle?" tweeted broadcaster and commentator
Another Twitter user, who identified himself as Sergei
Neptun, wrote: "Mr President, how much longer do we have to put
up with this lawlessness in the country?"