(photo credit: AP [file])
Less than a week before parliamentary elections, President Vladimir Putin charged Monday that the US was behind the refusal of a European watchdog group to send election monitors to Russia.
No outsider, Putin said, would be allowed to stick his "runny nose" into Russia's affairs.
Polls predict the main pro-Kremlin party, United Russia, will win a landslide, allowing Putin to claim a mandate to continue leading the country after he steps down as president next spring.
The campaign was marked over the weekend by the violent breakup of anti-Putin demonstrations and the detention of scores of protesters and opposition leaders, including former chess champion Garry Kasparov, now serving five days in jail.
Putin said the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, a branch of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, had succumbed to US pressure in deciding not to send observers to monitor Sunday's vote.
"According to the information we have, once again this was done on the advice of the US State Department, and we will undoubtedly take this into account in our relations with that country," Putin said.
Putin said the OSCE was trying to undermine Russia's upcoming election. "Their goal clearly is to make the elections look illegitimate, but they won't succeed," Putin said at a meeting sponsored by United Russia.
US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack rejected Putin's claims, though he said US officials had talked to OSCE representatives.
"Our very clear message to them was that this is your decision," McCormack said. "So there was no interference ... absolutely none."
The OSCE election monitoring office said Nov. 16 that it would not send a mission to observe Russia's vote because Moscow had not issued visas in time and had created other obstacles. Russia had also restricted the OSCE mission to 70 observers - far fewer than in previous elections.
Urdur Gunnarsdottir, a spokeswoman for the OSCE's monitoring arm, called Putin's accusations "nonsense."
"This decision was a decision that was only made based on the fact that we were not receiving any visas and were unable to do a meaningful observation of the election," Gunnarsdottir said. "It was not made on the recommendation or coordinated with any government, and certainly not with the US government."
Putin's charges came in the middle of the Kremlin's campaign to insure a big victory for the Putin-backed United Russia party, apparently to set the stage for him to become Russia's "national leader" in the coming months.
Putin, who is enormously popular, is barred by the constitution from seeking a third consecutive term. Presidential elections are scheduled for March 2.
Putin warned that Russia would bolster its military so that "no one puts his runny nose into our affairs."
Over the weekend, riot police wielding clubs broke up opposition rallies in Moscow and St. Petersburg, rounding up scores of protesters and several opposition leaders. The United States expressed concern over the Russian government's "aggressive tactics."
Boris Nemtsov, a leader of the Union of Right Forces Party, said official harassment had prevented his group from mounting a strong campaign.
"The entire campaign has been accompanied with slanderous hysteria and endless lies on the part of authorities," said Nemtsov, a likely presidential candidate who was detained by police during a demonstration in St. Petersburg. "The problem with Putin is not only his cruelty and cynicism, but that he has intimidated the whole country."
Nemtsov said advertising companies have refused to put up Union of Right Forces billboards in Moscow. One that was erected was torn down 15 minutes later, he said at a news conference Monday.
On Sunday, the official state Rossiya television station aired a documentary describing Russia's liberals as US stooges. The documentary claimed Washington wanted a popular uprising in Russia similar to those that helped pro-Western leaders take office in Ukraine and Georgia.
Russia's liberal democratic parties are on the verge of extinction. Opinion polls show support for Nemtsov's group and another liberal party, Yabloko, hovering around 1 or 2 percent. A party must win 7 percent of the vote to hold seats in Parliament.
United Russia would get between 56 and 67 percent of the vote, according to polls released Monday.
The Communists are forecast to win from 6 to 14 percent of the vote, but in recent years they have been regarded as a party of pensioners with relatively little political influence. Two other pro-Kremlin parties may be poised to win seats. The polls had a margin of error of no more than 3 percentage points.
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