VILNIUS Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested on Tuesday that Russia's elections were neither free nor fair, and Germany urged Moscow to make democratic improvements.
For a second day running, Clinton cited "serious concerns" about the Sunday election in which Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's parliamentary majority was slashed. Observers said the vote was marred by ballot-stuffing and other irregularities.
"When authorities fail to prosecute those who attack people for exercising their rights or exposing abuses, they subvert justice and undermine the people's confidence in their governments," Clinton said in a speech at the meeting of the 56-nation OSCE, Europe's biggest rights watchdog.
"As we have seen in many places, and most recently in the Duma elections in Russia, elections that are neither free nor fair have the same effect," she added, in comments that went a step further than her criticism of the vote on Monday.
Clinton repeated U.S. concerns that the independent Russian political party Parnas was denied the right to register for Sunday's Duma elections, and that observers such as the Golos network suffered cyber attacks.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said his country had noted with concern the reports received from election observers sent by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
"They show that the Russian Federation still has a way to go to fulfill all of the OSCE standards," he told the meeting.
"We encourage the Russian Federation, also when considering the next elections in Russia, to move in that direction," he told the conference, referring to March's presidential vote.
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt agreed. "It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this was not completely the free and fair election that I think the people of Russia also deserve," he told the meeting.
PUSH FOR DIGITAL FREEDOMS
Clinton also kept up strong criticism of Belarus during her visit to the OSCE.
"We recognize that this has been a brutally difficult year for the people of Belarus," Clinton told seven Belarussian activists she met on the sidelines of the OSCE meeting.
"We continue to demand the unconditional release of all political prisoners," she added.
In her speech to the OSCE, she said Ukraine prosecuted ex-premier Yulia Tymoshenko, who faces seven years in prison for abuse of office, for political reasons.
The United States is pushing the OSCE, formed in the 1970s during the Cold War in part as a way for the Western and Soviet blocs to discuss human rights, to embrace a draft "Declaration on Fundamental Freedoms in the Digital Age."
"Fundamental freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly, association and religion apply as much to a Twitter conversation and a gathering organized by NGOs (non-governmental organizations) on Facebook as they do to a demonstration in a public square," she said.
While Clinton said 28 OSCE members support the declaration, it was unlikely it would be adopted by the organisation, which operates by consensus. Russia and Belarus are both blocking the declaration but other countries such as Turkey also have reservations, diplomatic sources told Reuters.