Thursday, September 4, 2008

Putin Accuses U.S. of Interference

State Dept., European Agency Deny Allegations Over Decision Not to Monitor Election

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 27, 2007; Page A10

MOSCOW, Nov. 26 -- President Vladimir Putin on Monday accused the U.S. State Department of engineering the recent decision by Europe's principal election watchdog group not to monitor Russia's parliamentary elections this coming Sunday.

Earlier this month, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) announced that it would not observe the Dec. 2 elections, citing "delays and restrictions" imposed by the Russian government.

In the latest of a string of harsh accusations directed at Western governments, Putin on Monday described the decision as an attempt to undermine the vote's legitimacy. He warned that Russia's already strained relations with the United States could be affected.

"According to evidence we have, this was done on the recommendation of the U.S. State Department, and we will take this into account in our intergovernmental relations with that country," said Putin, speaking in St. Petersburg. "Actions like this will not foil elections in Russia. Their goal is to make the elections illegitimate. But they will fail again to attain this goal."

The monitoring group, an arm of the 56-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), dismissed Putin's charge as "nonsense."

"The decision did not follow the recommendation or request of any government," said Urdur Gunnarsdottir, a spokeswoman for the Warsaw-based organization, in a telephone interview. "It was taken by the ODIHR director after consultations with elections experts. . . . This is not a decision that had any political aim."

"There was no State Department meddling in the process," said department spokesman Sean McCormack, adding that American diplomats who met with OSCE officials delivered a message that only the OSCE could make the decision.

Last week, Putin said that "jackals" trained by "Western specialists" could attempt to seize power by organizing street protests such as those that ushered in pro-Western governments in neighboring Georgia and Ukraine.

Hundreds of protesters were detained by police at demonstrations in Russia over the weekend, including Garry Kasparov, the chess grandmaster and Putin critic. He was sentenced to five days in jail for taking part in an illegal march in Moscow.

On Monday, President Bush expressed deep concern about the Russian actions. "I am particularly troubled by the use of force by law enforcement authorities to stop these peaceful activities and to prevent some journalists and human rights activists from covering them," Bush said in a statement.

"The freedoms of expression, assembly and press, as well as due process, are fundamental to any democratic society," he said. "I am hopeful that the government of Russia will honor its international obligations in these areas, investigate allegations of abuses and free those who remain in detention."

The German government called Monday for Kasparov's release. "This makes his participation in the decisive phase of the Russian parliamentary elections on December 2 impossible," said government spokesman Ulrich Wilhelm, speaking at a news conference. "The German government believes it is necessary to immediately release him."

Opposition leaders here accuse authorities of not tolerating dissent as they clear a path for an overwhelming victory Sunday by the pro-Kremlin United Russia party. Putin is heading the party ticket. The Kremlin says it is merely enforcing Russian election laws and that in any case some opposition figures are in the pay of foreigners.

The assertion that the United States was behind the election monitors' decision came from Alexey Borodavkin, Russia's permanent representative to the OSCE in Vienna. At a meeting of the group's permanent council, Borodavkin said it was suspicious that Christian Strohal, director of the OSCE's monitoring group, was in Washington just before the group decided not to go to Russia.

Strohal, an Austrian diplomat, and OSCE Secretary General Marc Perrin de Brichambaut, a French diplomat, were in Washington to attend an Organization of American States meeting on election observation. The two diplomats also had bilateral meetings with State Department officials.

"I can say that there was no attempt whatsoever to influence in any way the decision which ODIHR eventually took," said Kyle Scott, deputy chief of the U.S. mission to the OSCE, at an OSCE council meeting, responding to Borodavkin's allegation. Scott's remarks were posted on the mission's Web site.

A spokesman for the OSCE, Mikhail Evstafiev, said in a telephone interview Monday that de Brichambaut nodded in agreement after Scott spoke.

Officials at the monitoring organization first complained that Russia delayed issuing any invitation to observers, limiting their ability to prepare. Russia then cut the number of observers it would allow to 70, compared with 450 long- and short-term observers at the last parliamentary elections in 2003.

The group said it decided not to participate after Russia failed to issue visas even for a scaled-back observation mission.

Russian officials insist that all of Russia's obligations as an OSCE member were met and that the dispute over issuing visas to observers was caused by the monitoring group's failure to complete the proper paperwork.

A delegation from the OSCE's parliamentary assembly will observe Sunday's elections, as will a variety of other observers, including monitors from other former republics of the Soviet Union.

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