Putin accuses U.S. of meddling in Russia vote
By Oleg Shchedrov
ST PETERSBURG, Russia (Reuters) - 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.
"We have information that, once again, this was done on the recommendation of the U.S. 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.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said that while Washington supported the OSCE's decision, it had not influenced OSCE representatives.
"Our very clear message (to them) was that this is your decision. We don't want to try to influence you one way or another," McCormack told reporters.
He dismissed Putin's sharpness of language as election-time rhetoric. "Any time you have a political season, you sometimes get rhetoric that is a little more sharp than it might otherwise be. I don't put it down to anything more than that," McCormack said.
A poll published on Monday by Russia's FOM pollster predicted United Russia would win 60.1 percent in the vote this weekend, a dip of two percent from the previous week. The poll put nearest rivals the Communist Party at 7.5 percent.
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 organizing 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.
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 destabilize Russia with help from foreign governments. Kasparov's coalition barely registers any support in opinion polls.
Putin is running in the election as No. 1 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.
(Additional reporting by Guy Faulconbridge, Conor Sweeney and Dmitry Solovyov in Moscow and Brussels and Paris bureaux)
(Writing by Christian Lowe, Editing by Richard Balmforth)
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