Russia, US Spar Over Election Unrest

Harking back to the rhetoric of the Cold War, Putin accused US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of deliberately sending a signal to the opposition to protest by questioning the fairness of the weekend’s parliamentary polls.

The United States dismissed the charges, saying that funding by Washington goes only to strengthening democracy.

Around 1 600 people have been arrested in three days of protests in Moscow and Saint Petersburg alleging widespread fraud in the parliamentary polls, but organisers have vowed to stage a mass demonstration in Moscow at the weekend, prompting President Dmitry Medvedev to appeal for calm.

In his first public comments on the protests, Putin accused Clinton of criticising the polls before even reading the reports of international monitors.

He accused Washington of paying Russian groups to find fault with the elections and said its criticism “had set the tone for some people inside the country and given a signal”.

“They heard the signal and with the support of the US State Department started active work,” he said in a meeting with supporters broadcast on state television.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters, expanding on Clinton’s response earlier Thursday in Brussels where she said she supported the rights of the Russian people.

US programmes “are designed to support a more transparent, free and fair electoral process. They’re not about favouring any political group or any political agenda more than any other agenda,” Toner said.

“We’ve stood up, as we have elsewhere in the world, and continue to stand for the right for people to peacefully express their views and their democratic aspirations,” Toner said. “There’s no ‘signalling’ involved.”

Clinton earlier this week complained the polls were neither free nor fair, a concern echoed by the last leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, who on Wednesday called for them to be re-run due to ballot rigging.

After talks between NATO allies and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Brussels, Clinton made clear she had no intention of softening her line, saying the US had expressed concerns “that we thought were well-founded”.

“We are supportive of the rights and aspirations of the Russian people to be able to make progress and to realise a better future for themselves, and we hope to see that unfold in the years ahead,” she said.

Twenty years to the day after the leaders of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine signed the accords that buried the Soviet Union, Putin’s comments stoked new tensions with Washington, on top of a dispute over missile defence.

He accused the West of funding Russian NGOs to the tune of “hundreds of millions of dollars” with the aim of questioning the validity of the elections. “This is unacceptable,” he said.

Independent poll monitoring group Golos has said it was subjected to severe harassment by the authorities since the build-up to the elections, with its communications paralysed and its chief detained for hours.

Putin said Russia would hold to account those who “dance to the tune of a foreign state”.

He said Russia did not want to see the instability endured by Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, two ex-Soviet states that saw regimes toppled in so-called “colour revolutions” after the fall of the Soviet Union.

The elections were seen as a litmus test of Putin’s popularity ahead of his planned return to the presidency in March 2012 polls.

His United Russia party won the parliamentary election, albeit with a reduced majority, but the opposition says the results would have been far worse in free polls.

Putin, who became premier in 2008 after serving two terms as president, on Wednesday filed his application to stand in the March election. But analysts say his path back to the Kremlin is much thornier than just one week ago.

More than 20 000 people have pledged on a Facebook page that they will attend the demonstration on Saturday afternoon on Revolution Square, just metres from the Kremlin walls.

Protest plans have spread to almost all Russia’s large cities, from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok, with thousands more people signing up to nearly 80 online groups preparing weekend rallies against election fraud.

President Dmitry Medvedev, who has held Putin’s old job since 2008 without stepping out of his shadow, called for calm and said protesters should not break the law.

“I think people must be allowed to express their opinion, it’s normal to want that, but that must not create problems in Moscow,” he said in Prague.

“The main thing is to calm down and give the new parliament a chance to start working,” he said, calling on Russians to “be obedient and not violate the law”.

While the rally in the capital is officially sanctioned by the authorities, the permission is for a maximum of 300 people, raising the prospect that it will be broken up by anti-riot police if greater numbers show up. – Sapa-AFP