Putin accuses US of meddling in Russia vote

President Vladimir Putin accused Washington on Monday of plotting to undermine December parliamentary elections seen widely as a demonstration of his enduring power in Russia.

Putin, drawing on resurgent nationalist sentiment ahead of Sunday’s poll, also said Russia must maintain its defences to discourage others from ”poking their snotty noses” in its affairs.

Europe, however, joined the US in voicing concern over a weekend police crackdown on protests by an opposition that says it has been banished from the airwaves and from the streets by an overbearing Kremlin.

Putin, who must step down as president early next year, said he saw Washington’s hand in a decision by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s ODIHR monitoring arm to abandon plans to observe the poll.

”We have information that, once again, this was done on the recommendation of the US State Department,” Putin said at a meeting with activists of his United Russia party.

”Their aim is to deprive the elections of legitimacy, that is absolutely clear,” he said in his home city of St Petersburg. ODIHR has said Russian obstruction left it with no choice but to cancel the monitoring mission.

A poll published on Monday by Russia’s FOM pollster predicted United Russia would win 60,1% in the vote this weekend, a dip of 2% from the previous week. The poll put nearest rivals the Communist Party at 7,5%.

A high vote would underline Putin’s popularity and help him retain authority in some form after yielding the presidency.

Two weekend rallies by an anti-Putin coalition protesting that the vote would be unfair were broken up by police using truncheons. Former chess champion Garry Kasparov, one of the coalition’s leaders, was one of dozens of people arrested.

Kasparov is serving five days in detention for organising an illegal protest. A Moscow court on Monday rejected an appeal lodged by his lawyer against the sentence, one of Kasparov’s aides told Reuters from the courtroom.

Opposition protests

In Brussels, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said he was concerned by the ”heavy-handed action” by Russian police. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said Russia’s government should explain its actions.

Kremlin officials say the protesters do not have popular support and are dangerous radicals trying to destabilise Russia with help from foreign governments. Kasparov’s coalition barely registers any support in opinion polls.

Putin is running in the election as number one on United Russia’s slate of candidates.

The 55-year-old Russian leader has said he will hand over power to a successor in line with a constitutional ban on a head of state serving more than two consecutive terms as president.

Putin, seen by many as bringing Russia much-needed stability, has said he will endorse one of his lieutenants as a successor. But he has refused to say which one.

Some observers speculate that Putin might step down early and run in the presidential vote, exploiting a legal loophole to get around the three-term ban.

Russia’s upper House of Parliament, the Federation Council, officially named March 2 next year as the date of the presidential vote, shifting the guessing game over what will happen when Putin’s term ends into its decisive phase.

After the date has been published in the official gazette on Wednesday, would-be candidates will have 25 days to apply to run in the presidential election. — Reuters

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