ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — Before leaving for home after the Group of 20 summit, President Barack Obama sat down with Russian civil society activists on Friday evening to assure them that he would keep pressing Moscow to respect human rights, some of the activists said. But Obama also explained to them why this wasn't always possible.
"He was telling us how difficult it is for him to raise these issues, especially in relations with Russia and China," said Pavel Chikov, who heads Agors, a legal aid nongovernmental organization.
During the meeting that lasted an hour and a half, Obama spoke of his past as a community organizer and said he enjoys doing these events in each country he visits.
"I got elected as president by engaging people at a grassroots level," he said.
Obama said the leaders gathered with him at the event all "contribute in one way or another to continue to strengthen Russian society and helping to make progress on behalf of all people."
"The kinds of activities that are represented here are critically important to Russia's development and I'm very proud of their work," Obama said. "I think it's important to remember that in every country, here in Russia, in the United States, around the globe, that part of good government is making sure that we're creating space for civil society to function."
Yana Yakovleva, head of business advocacy group Business Solidarity, described the meeting with Obama as "open and sincere." Obama told them that the U.S. administration has to think carefully before poking the Russians, she said.
"His main message was that there's a lot of differences between the two great powers, and that while deciding which issue to raise they have to weigh carefully the impact it may have on relations on the whole," Yakovleva said.
The meeting was held several hours after two dozen of gay activists rallied in St. Petersburg to protest Russia's new law banning gay propaganda, which prompted some activists to call for the boycott of the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi.
Igor Kochetkov, the head of LGBT Network, who took part in the protest and also attended the meeting with Obama, said the activists pushed him to be more outspoken in his criticism of the rights situation in Russia.
"We asked him to be more open while assessing the human rights situation in other countries, including Russia," Kochetkov said.
He praised Obama for sending a "clear signal that it's impossible to discuss the human rights situation without discussing the problems faced by LGBT." "The rise of xenophobia, homophobia and anti-Western sentiments in Russia are inter-connected," Kochetkov said.
Kochetkov added that the participants appreciated Obama's candor, his acknowledgement that "he's not a superman who can come and fix everything."
AP writers Josh Lederman, Irina Titova and Vladimir Isachenkov contributed to this report.