Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin accused the U.S. authorities on Thursday of sponsoring the opposition in Russia and urged harsher punishments for those acting on orders from “foreign states.”
His remarks followed comments by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other senior Washington officials about the outcome of Russia’s parliamentary elections, in which the pro-Kremlin United Russia party gained almost half of the vote.
The White House said it had “serious concerns” about the polls, which were marred by accusations of ballot-stuffing and other irregularities, with Clinton describing the vote as neither free nor fair.
“I looked at the first reaction of our U.S. colleagues,” Putin said during a meeting with representatives of his All-Russia People’s Front movement in Moscow.
“The [U.S.] secretary of state was quick to evaluate the elections, saying that they are unfair and unjust, even before she received materials from the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) observers.”
President Dmitry Medvedev said Sunday's polls were democratic and fair, despite numerous violations registered by international observers, which he said would be investigated.
Clinton’s comments, Putin said, became a “signal” for “our activists, who began active work with the support of the U.S. Department of State.”
Massive opposition protests against the alleged vote fraud in favor of United Russia took place in Moscow and St. Petersburg following Sunday's elections. Several thousand protesters participated in marches in downtown Moscow on Monday and Tuesday and another major protest is expected to be held on Saturday near the Kremlin’s walls.
Following reports of hundreds of protesters detained during the rallies, the U.S. Department of State Deputy Spokesperson Mark Toner said earlier on Thursday that the United States “would obviously support the rights of anyone to peaceful protest, emphasis on peaceful, anywhere in the world,” including Russia.
In this Thursday's comments, Putin said Russia “must protect” its “sovereignty” by thwarting foreign governments’ attempts to interfere in its domestic affairs.
“When money from abroad is invested in political activities inside another country, this concerns us,” he said, adding that “hundreds of millions of dollars” of foreign money have been spent to influence the election process in Russia.
“We are not against foreign observers monitoring out election process,” Putin said. “But when they begin motivating some organizations inside the country which claim to be domestic but in fact are funded from abroad… this is unacceptable.”
His remarks seemed to be an apparent reference to the Moscow-based Golos election watchdog, which has faced pressure from the authorities ahead of the polls amid reports of its funding by U.S. government-affiliated structures.
Punishment for those cooperating with foreign governments should be toughened, Putin said.
“We will have to think about improving our laws in order to make those fulfilling the tasks of a foreign state aimed at influencing our domestic [political] process more responsible,” he said.
Several opposition activists have been jailed for 15 days for disobeying police orders during the opposition rallies earlier this week and more arrests are likely to follow during Saturday's protest. The authorities have authorized the demonstration but only 300 people have been allowed to take part in it, while some 20,000 social networks users have already registered to participate in the protest.