Russian President Vladimir Putin accused the US on Monday of trying to taint the legitimacy of next week's Russian parliamentary elections by pressing a group of prominent independent election observers to abandon efforts to monitor the campaign.
Putin contended that the monitors, who are deployed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), had halted plans to appraise the parliamentary balloting at the urging of the US State Department.
Putin's statements in recent weeks have taken on an increasingly nationalistic tone as he has sought to muster support for his party in the elections on Sunday. Speaking to reporters on Monday in St. Petersburg, he once again criticized what he suggested was foreign meddling in Russia's affairs.
"According to information we have, it was again done at the recommendation of the US State Department, and we will take this into account in our interstate relations with this country," he said. "Their goal is the delegitimization of the elections. But they will not achieve even this goal."
If Russia maintains a robust military, Putin said, "we will not allow anyone to poke their snotty nose into our affairs."
US diplomats said they had no role in the cancelation of the election-monitoring mission, and the monitoring group called Putin's assertion "nonsense."
Bush expressed deep concern on Monday over the detention of political leaders, including former chess champion Garry Kasparov, during the weekend in Moscow, St. Petersburg and two other cities.
"The freedoms of expression, assembly and press, as well as due process, are fundamental to any democratic society," Bush said in a statement.
"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," 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."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov dismissed Bush's criticism, saying police had responded properly to "provocations" by protesters who refused to remain in an area where city authorities had permitted them to demonstrate.
"All democratic states have laws, and people must abide by them," Lavrov said in Washington, in remarks broadcast yesterday on state-run Vesti-24 television. "I saw nothing in the actions of the law enforcement organs to indicate that they exceeded their authority."
Meanwhile, Russia's top election official appeared to rule out the possibility of Putin exploiting a legal loophole to run for a third term, a Moscow radio station reported.
Some politicians with Kremlin links say if Putin steps down before the end of his term and then runs in a presidential election next year, he would be able to dodge a constitutional ban on presidents serving three consecutive terms.
An election law prohibits a head of state from running in a snap election called as a result of that person leaving office early. But it does not spell out what happens if the president steps down after a scheduled election has already been called.
The election will be officially called today, when the March 2 date is published in the official gazette. According to the theory, that opens up a window for Putin to step down and then enter the race.