WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States rejected on Monday claims by Russian President Vladimir Putin that Washington was trying to undermine December parliamentary elections, calling his sharp words election “rhetoric.”
Putin, who must step down as president early next year, said he saw Washington’s hand in a decision by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s monitoring arm to abandon plans to observe the vote.
But State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said that was not the case and while Washington supported the OSCE’s decision, it had not influenced them.
Senior State Department officials spoke to OSCE representatives in Washington on November 13 when they were debating whether or not to send any election monitors.
“The charge that the U.S encouraged, pushed or influenced the OSCE not to attend the elections is false,” Daniel Fried, assistant secretary of state for European affairs, told Reuters of the November 13 meeting, which he attended.
“I repeated several times that we were not trying to push them in either direction and that we respected that it had to be their decision and not our steer,” said Fried.
McCormack said the OSCE had decided not to go because the Russian government was putting up “obstacles and road blocks” that would undermine the OSCE’s credibility.
Later on Monday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was scheduled to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who is in the United States for a Middle East conference in nearby Annapolis, Maryland.
McCormack said Rice did not plan to raise the issue of OSCE monitors, but if Lavrov wanted to, then the top U.S. diplomat would be prepared to discuss it.
The United States and Europe have voiced concern over a weekend police crackdown on protests by an opposition that says it has been banished from the airwaves and the streets by an overbearing Kremlin.
A senior U.S. official said he believed Putin’s anti-U.S. comments about the OSCE were to mask embarrassment over Russia’s heavy-handed crackdown of demonstrators, including the arrest of chess champion Garry Kasparov.
“It makes them look petty and mean. I think that that is an embarrassment and he is trying to change the subject and have it be the Americans’ fault. It is not our fault,” said the official, who asked not to be named because he was directly criticizing Putin.
In his comments, Putin discouraged others from “poking their snotty noses” into Russia’s affairs. Asked about the derogatory nature of his remarks, McCormack said he could not account for the translation of what Putin had said.
“Look, 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.
The United States is at loggerheads with Russia over a host of issues, from Kosovo’s independence and U.S. plans to place a missile defense shield in Europe to Washington’s bid to pile more sanctions on Iran over its nuclear ambitions.
McCormack said the two foreign ministers would likely discuss Iran, missile defense and Kosovo during their meeting.
Editing by David Alexander and David Wiessler