* Putin says there can be no return to Stalin-era oppression
* Defends what critics and rights groups call clampdown on
* Q&A session coincides with conviction of protester and
fine for NGO
By Steve Gutterman
MOSCOW, April 25 President Vladimir Putin
rejected comparisons with Soviet dictator Josef Stalin on
Thursday in his annual televised question-and-answer session
with citizens, denying political persecution but saying Russia
needed order and discipline.
A liberal journalist referred to a host of legal sanctions
applied to Putin's opponents since he was re-elected president
to ask him whether there were elements of Stalinism in his
exercise of power.
But on a day when the first Russian civic group was fined
under a new law intended to limit foreign influence, an
opposition activist was jailed over an anti-government protest
and another was being tried for fraud, Putin dismissed the idea.
"I don't see any elements of Stalinism here," he said.
"Stalinism is linked to the cult of personality, massive legal
violations, repressions and labour camps.
"There is nothing like that in Russia and I hope there never
will be again," he said. "But this does not mean that we should
not have order and discipline."
Putin, a former KGB officer who has mixed praise of some of
Stalin's achievements with criticism of his harsh methods,
denied using the courts to persecute opponents - a hallmark of
Stalin's three decades in power until his death in 1953.
"Nobody is putting anyone behind bars for their political
views," Putin said.
Protest leader and anti-corruption campaigner Alexei
Navalny, arguably Putin's most formidable political opponent in
the absence of any effective parliamentary opposition, says his
trial on charges of defrauding a timber firm has been trumped up
to silence him.
Avoiding using Navalny's name, but clearly referring to him,
Putin said: "People who fight corruption must be pure as crystal
themselves, otherwise it (their campaigning) all looks like
self-promotion and political advertising."
Navalny's supporters have compared his trial to that of
former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was jailed in 2005
on fraud and tax evasion charges after falling out with Putin
and remains in prison.
Putin's remarks in a confident live appearance that lasted
nearly five hours indicated he has no plans to ease the pressure
on opponents and activists that has helped stifle what were the
biggest opposition protests since he came to power in 2000.
The human rights campaign groups Amnesty International and
Human Rights Watch this week said Putin's new term had seen a
witch-hunt against dissenters and the toughest crackdown on
civil society since the Soviet era.
PROTESTERS ON TRIAL
A Moscow court on Thursday convicted opposition activist
Konstantin Lebedev of organising mass disorder at a protest on
May 6 last year, the eve of Putin's inauguration, and sentenced
him to two-and-a-half years in prison.
He was given lenient treatment because he implicated others,
which lawyers fear could bode ill for prominent opposition
leader Sergei Udaltsov and more than 20 others who have also
been formally accused or charged in connection with the May 6
protest. One other person has been convicted.
Also on Thursday, a Moscow court handed a 300,000 rouble
($9,500) fine to Golos, a vote-monitoring group that documented
fraud allegations in the presidential election and a 2011
parliamentary election, for declining to register as a "foreign
agent" under a new law aimed at NGOs with foreign funding.
For many Russians, that designation clearly evokes the
Stalin era. Golos said the foreign payment in question had been
a human rights prize, which it had promptly returned in full.
Putin dismissed criticism of the law, saying: "Let them say
where they got money, how much, and how they have spent it."
He also referred disparagingly to Pussy Riot, the female
band, some of whose members were jailed for singing a raucous
anti-Putin song near the altar of Moscow's main Orthodox
"These girls from Pussy Riot and guys who desecrate the
graves of our soldiers must be equal before the law," he said.