Thursday, April 26, 2007

Putin accuses foreigners of meddling in Russia's affairs

The Associated Press Thursday, April 26, 2007

MOSCOW: President Vladimir Putin, combative and unrepentant in the face of criticism of his heavy-handed rule, charged Thursday that foreigners seeking to thwart Russia's resurgence were increasingly interfering in its affairs. He also declared in his State of the Nation address that he would not seek a third term, but refused to name his preferred successor and said nothing to quell speculation that he would seek to remain in power behind the scenes. Putin's second term, his last under the Constitution, ends in 2008. Last month, the head of the upper house of Parliament proposed amending the Constitution to let him stay in office.
But Putin has consistently dismissed that idea, and his statement in the speech underlined the point clearly. "The next State of the Nation address will be given by another head of state," he said. He then acknowledged that many had expected this speech to be his opportunity to openly state whom he wanted to succeed him, but instead he drew a laugh by saying that "it is premature for me to declare a political will."

Russia is entering a high-stakes political season, with parliamentary elections in December followed by presidential elections in March. Russian officials in recent months have complained that Western countries are trying to meddle in the political process by financing domestic organizations, and Putin echoed those charges. "There is a growth in the flow of money from abroad for direct interference in our internal affairs," Putin said in his address, delivered to the Federation Council, the upper house of Parliament. "There are those who, skillfully using pseudo-democratic rhetoric, would like to return to the recent past - some to loot the country's national riches, to rob the people and the state; others to strip us of economic and political independence."

Putin did not cite specific countries as sources of money. The Foreign Ministry complained extensively this month about U.S. financing of organizations whose stated goal is to promote democracy in Russia. Russian officials contend that the true aim of such financing is to provoke mass opposition protests like those that helped propel pro-Western leaders into power in neighboring Georgia and Ukraine in recent years. The Russian police harshly cracked down on a series of opposition protest marches this year, beating some demonstrators and detaining hundreds.

Opposition forces charge that Putin is strangling democracy through an array of measures to centralize power and increase the influence of large political parties.
In the parliamentary elections in December, seats will be distributed entirely on a party-list basis, eliminating the opportunity for small parties to win seats through strong local support in particular districts. Critics say the change is among the measures intended to smother opposition. But Putin said it was part of "a revolutionary step modernizing the elections system" that would "help the opposition widen its representation."The death Monday of Putin's predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, drew new attention to complaints that Putin is heading the country away from democracy. Yeltsin, as Russia's first post-Soviet leader, instituted changes that encouraged pluralism and nudged the country toward democracy.

Putin also praised the development of Russia's economy, which has soared during his presidency, driven largely by high worldwide oil prices. Brusquely dismissing protests by Russian officials, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Thursday that a missile-defense system the United States hopes to install in Poland and the Czech Republic would pose no danger to the security of Russia, The New York Times reported from Oslo. "The idea that somehow 10 interceptors and a few radars in Eastern Europe are going to threaten the Soviet strategic deterrent is purely ludicrous, and everybody knows it," Rice said before a meeting of NATO foreign ministers to focus on the dispute.

Still, Rice said the United States would continue discussing the system with Russian officials, in an effort to "demystify" it.

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