President Vladimir Putin accused the U.S. of pressuring respected international monitors to stay away from Sunday`s parliamentary elections, a decision that hurts the credibility of balloting that is expected to bolster his power.
The election monitoring arm of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe had said that Russia has so severely restricted its ability to watch the elections that it could not monitor them.
But Putin blamed the State Department for persuading the OSCE not to send the monitors in order to delegitimize the vote, saying at a political meeting Monday that relations with Washington would be affected. He also warned that Russia was building up its military so that "no one puts his runny nose into our affairs."
A landslide being predicted for the Putin-backed United Russia party is expected to set the stage for the highly popular president to remain "national leader." Putin is constitutionally barred from seeking a third consecutive term in presidential elections, which lawmakers have scheduled for March 2.
Anti-Putin demonstrations were violently broken up over the weekend by riot police who detained scores of protesters and opposition leaders, including former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, one of Putin`s fiercest critics.
President Bush said he was "deeply concerned about the detention of numerous human rights activists and political leaders who participated in peaceful rallies."
"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," Bush said. "The freedoms of expression, assembly and press, as well as due process, are fundamental to any democratic society. 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."
A Moscow judge ruled Monday that Kasparov had to serve out the five-day jail sentence he received Saturday in a hastily organized trial.
Kasparov was convicted of organizing an unsanctioned procession, chanting anti-government slogans and resisting arrest. He argued that he had followed police orders and was illegally detained. He also cited contradictory testimony from police officers, who told the court that they had been ordered before the Saturday rally to arrest Kasparov.
Restrictions ahead of Sunday`s election have also been criticized abroad.
The OSCE election monitoring arm said Nov. 16 that it would not send a mission to observe the vote because Moscow had not issued visas in time and had created other obstacles. Russia had also restricted the OSCE mission to 70 observers — far fewer than in previous elections.
Other groups are observing the Russian election but none that are seen to be as credible and authoritative as the OSCE monitors.
Putin told the meeting sponsored by United Russia that the OSCE had succumbed to U.S. pressure in deciding not to send observers to monitor the vote.
"According to the information we have, once again this was done on the advice of the U.S. State Department, and we will undoubtedly take this into account in our relations with that country," Putin said.
"Their goal clearly is to make the elections look illegitimate, but they won`t succeed," Putin said.
Urdur Gunnarsdottir, a spokeswoman for the OSCE`s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, called Putin`s accusations "nonsense."
"This decision was a decision that was only made based on the fact that we were not receiving any visas and were unable to do a meaningful observation of the election," Gunnarsdottir said.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack also rejected Putin`s claims, although he said U.S. officials had talked to OSCE representatives.
"Our very clear message to them was that this is your decision," McCormack said. "So there was no interference ... absolutely none."
The United States expressed concern over the Russian government`s "aggressive tactics" after riot police wielding clubs broke up the weekend opposition rallies in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Boris Nemtsov, a leader of the Union of Right Forces party and a likely presidential candidate, said official harassment had prevented his group from mounting a strong campaign.
"The entire campaign has been accompanied with slanderous hysteria and endless lies on the part of authorities," said Nemtsov, who was detained by police at a St. Petersburg demonstration. "The problem with Putin is not only his cruelty and cynicism, but that he has intimidated the whole country."
Nemtsov said advertising companies have refused to put up Union of Right Forces billboards in Moscow. One that was erected was torn down 15 minutes later, he said.
On Sunday, the official state Rossiya television station broadcast a documentary describing Russia`s liberals as U.S. stooges. The documentary claimed Washington wanted a popular uprising in Russia similar to those that helped pro-Western leaders take office in Ukraine and Georgia.
Opinion polls show support for Nemtsov`s group and another liberal party, Yabloko, hovering around 1 percent or 2 percent. A party must win 7 percent of the vote to hold seats in parliament.
United Russia would get between 56 percent and 67 percent of the vote, according to polls released Monday.
Associated Press Writers Bagila Bukharbayeva and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Ryan Lucas in Warsaw, Poland, contributed to this report.