By Liza Dobkina and Matt Spetalnick
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (Reuters) - President Barack Obama trod carefully in talks with Russian human rights activists after a G20 summit dominated by the Syrian crisis on Friday, avoiding direct public criticism of Kremlin policies the United States has denounced.
Following a tradition that has irritated President Vladimir Putin, who accuses Washington of meddling in Russia's affairs and backing his foes, Obama made a point of meeting civil society leaders while visiting for a international gathering.
Obama's huddle with activists came at a sensitive time when ties are badly strained over Syria, Russia's sheltering of U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden and the disputes over human rights that mounted after Putin started a third term in 2012.
The United States has accused Russia of curbing freedoms, stifling dissent and discriminating against members of the gay community with a series of laws Putin has signed since he returned to the Kremlin after four years as prime minister.
The meeting in Putin's home town might have been expected to be particularly offensive to the Kremlin after Obama pulled out of a one-on-one summit planned for this week in Moscow, before the Group of Twenty summit in St. Petersburg.
But with journalists present for his opening remarks to nine activists, Obama avoided direct criticism of Russia's human rights record and made no specific mention of the gay rights controversy.
"As important as government is and laws, what makes a country democratic and effective in delivering prosperity, security and hope to people is going to be an active and thriving civil society," he told the diverse group that included advocates of gay rights, business, the environment and other causes.
The words may have been aimed at Putin, whose government has placed new restrictions on protests and who signed legislation last year requiring non-governmental organizations with funding from abroad to register as "foreign agents" - a term loaded with connotations of Cold War espionage and treason.
A senior Obama administration official said the president was keen to underscore his opposition to Russia's new ban on homosexual "propaganda", hoping Putin might take heed as he tries to improve Moscow's international image in the run-up to next February's Winter Olympics in Sochi, southern Russia.
About 20 gay rights activists demonstrated in central St. Petersburg on Friday, far from the summit site, holding signs criticizing Putin and the gay propaganda law, or bearing slogans such as "God loves gays, God loves everybody".
Underscoring the troubles gay people face in Russia, hundreds of helmeted police in body armor separated the demonstrators from dozens of anti-gay activists who shouted insults and chanted prayers.
Gay rights activist Igor Kochetkov suggested it may have been Obama's plan for the meeting that prompted Putin to say recently that he was ready to meet Russian gay rights activists himself - though that has not occurred yet.
But Kochetkov said Obama should not let other interests get in the way of human rights concerns.
"The main thing that disappointed me was that Obama said he cannot look at Russian-American relations solely through the prism of human rights ... that there are also economic and military issues," he said after the meeting.
Putin may have been pleased by the decision of at least three prominent activists who are Kremlin critics to turn down the meeting with Obama, even though they said they did so because the White House repeatedly changed the date and time.
One activist who declined the invitation because of the rescheduling, Svetlana Gannushkina, wrote a message to Obama voicing opposition to military action against Syria.
"I have great respect for the degree of responsibility the U.S. leadership shows for the fate of the world in the name of its people," she wrote, but added that "military operations leading to the death of new victims among the civilian population are not the best expression of this responsibility."
(Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)