PARIS Vladimir Putin made his first major foray abroad as Russia's prime minister Thursday, insisting that managing the economy rather than ensuring human rights are respected is now his main job.
While Putin is no longer Russia's president, he didn't hesitate to use a visit to Paris to address the issue of human rights, which he said was no longer part of his official bailiwick.
Honoring protocol, Putin spoke to reporters with his French counterpart, Francois Fillon, before moving on for dinner with President Nicolas Sarkozy in the kind of event generally reserved for heads of state.
Putin's trip to Paris, his first high-profile venture abroad in his new role, was likely to be scrutinized for signs of who's behind Russia's foreign policy now that his protege Dmitry Medvedev is in the president's seat.
Putin used the chance to draw the line between their roles.
"The government handles the economy," he said. Dealing with human rights "is the area of competency of the president," he said before raising questions about that issue in France.
"Concerns about the lack of human rights in Russia are strongly exaggerated. And in general, this theme is an instrument for pressure on Russia," he said, adding that "any country" has human rights problems.
"Let's take the example of, I don't know, the situation in prisons in France and other detention centers. Is everything OK there for you? Why don't we look into it?" he said.
Fillon didn't contradict his guest. He instead noted how he was "impressed by the breadth of reforms achieved in Russia since 1999," when Putin became president.
"We don't teach lessons to anybody," Fillon said.
On the table were issues like energy, particularly nuclear, oil and gas. "Europe's energy security comes first through calm, more confident relations between the European Union and Russia," Fillon said.
Few clear signs have emerged about who will lead Russian foreign policy now that Putin's hand-picked successor Medvedev has taken over the Kremlin. Traditionally Russia's president holds that responsibility, but many expect Putin to retain a substantial say in policy as prime minister.