Putin accuses US of undermining elections
Saint Petersburg - President Vladimir Putin on Monday accused the United States of trying to "discredit" Russia's parliamentary elections by pressuring foreign observers to abandon their monitoring mission.
Putin made the accusation as his government came under sharp criticism over the weekend jailing of opposition leader and former chess champion Garry Kasparov during protests dispersed by riot police ahead of Sunday's elections.
On a campaign swing through his home town of Saint Petersburg, he said monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) cancelled a planned mission to Russia "on the recommendation of the American State Department."
"The aim is to discredit the elections, but they won't achieve their goal," Putin said during a meeting with supporters from a youth group. "These elections will take place according to the rule of law."
"We will take this into account in our inter-state relations," he warned.
Washington on Monday denied any role in the decision, with State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack insisting "there was no interference" in the OSCE's plans for poll monitoring.
US Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns did speak with officials at the OSCE, but this was "their decision and their decision only," McCormack said.
The OSCE scrapped its 70-strong observer mission earlier this month, citing a lack of co-operation with Moscow.
The decision has cast a shadow over the legitimacy of the December 2 vote, in which Putin's United Russia party is forecast to win a crushing victory.
In Warsaw, a spokesperson for the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights rejected the claims, saying visa problems had forced the organisation to cancel its mission.
"I think that Mr. Putin has been misinformed," said Urdur Gunnarsdottir.
"This was not a decision made on recommendation from any OSCE state."
Putin's visit to the former imperial capital followed the weekend arrest and sentencing to five days in jail of Kasparov, a chess grandmaster who heads a coalition of Putin opponents, The Other Russia.
Kasparov was arrested for public order offences at a Moscow rally Saturday and about 200 opposition activists were detained at another demonstration in Saint Petersburg the following day.
The Other Russia is planning to hold another protest on December 3, the day after the elections, said Andrei Bilunov, a senior member of the coalition.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said Russian authorities had been "heavy-handed" while the United States voiced concern over the "aggressive tactics" used by police.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said the arrests were unwarranted since Kasparov "posed no threat to Russian security... It all requires an explanation."
Casually dressed in an ivory-coloured polo shirt, Putin also took a swipe at foreigners who stick "their runny noses" in Russia's affairs in response to a question about the state of the country's armed forces.
"We must build up our armed forces to prevent foreigners from sticking their runny noses in our affairs," Putin said.
The police clampdown on the opposition protesters was the latest focal point of Russia's increasingly strained relations with the West.
Another opposition leader briefly detained in Saint Petersburg on Sunday, former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, lambasted the authorities' conduct.
"There is absolutely no doubt that these elections will not be recognised anywhere in the world as free and democratic," said Nemtsov, who plans to run in a presidential election early next year.
The Federation Council, the upper house of parliament, on Monday set March 2 as the date for the poll that is to choose Putin's successor.
The 55-year-old is barred from running for a third term as president and has suggested he could serve as prime minister or hold some other, as yet undefined, position.
Putin is standing as the lead candidate of the United Russia party in Sunday's polls and has said that a strong victory would give him the "moral right" to retain a role in politics.
A poll by the VTsIOM institute showed United Russia would garner at least 62 percent of the vote, with three other parties set to win seats: the Communist party, the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) and the left-of-centre Just Russia party.
No other parties were forecast to pass the minimum seven percent threshold for entry into the State Duma. - Sapa-AFP