Putin ratchets up anti-western rhetoric before presidential poll


RUSSIAN PREMIER Vladimir Putin is hardening his anti-western rhetoric to undermine opponents and rally support, six weeks before a vote that is set to return him to the Kremlin.

Mr Putin, in recent days, has denounced US plans to build a missile defence system in eastern Europe. Moreover, his allies have lambasted the US ambassador to Russia for meeting opposition groups while the military has, reportedly, revealed its intention to deploy missiles within striking range of EU states.

This salvo came in the context of more strident opposition to western calls for tougher action against Iran and Syria, and claims by Russia’s only independent election monitor, Golos, that a harassment campaign could mean it is hounded from its Moscow office.

Andreas Schockenhoff, the German government’s co-ordinator for Russian relations, expressed “grave concern” that Golos was on the brink of eviction, a move that follows allegations from state television that the monitor is a US lackey.

Golos’s plight “gives every cause for doubt as to whether the Russian leadership has any interest in the proper conduct of the elections,” Dr Schockenhoff said yesterday, as a team from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe started its election monitoring in Russia.

“Free and independent observation of elections belongs to the core elements of European and international democratic standards,” said Dr Schockenhoff. “Russia is bound to these standards through its membership of international organisations such as the OSCE.”

The 56-nation OSCE – which Ireland now chairs – issued a damning report on Russia’s December parliamentary election. Its findings formed the basis of scathing US criticism of the ballot, which Mr Putin blamed for triggering the biggest protests of his 11 years in power.

Russia’s opposition movement has finally received permission for another anti-Putin protest on February 4th, when it hopes that at least 50,000 will rally in central Moscow. Groups supporting Mr Putin plan rival demonstrations on the same day.

Mr Putin depicts his liberal opponents and pro-democracy groups as western-funded puppets determined to undermine his authority and destabilise Russia.

He said this week that the US wants to build a missile defence system “to strengthen its position as the leader of the western world . . . Sometimes I get the impression that the US doesn’t need allies, it needs vassals,” he told students during a campaign trip to the Siberian city of Tomsk.

Russian media quoted a source in the navy’s Baltic fleet as saying that Iskander missiles would be deployed this year in Kaliningrad, which borders EU members Poland and Lithuania. The rockets have a range of about 500km.

The US insists that missile defence does not threaten Russia, but the deteriorating relationship has been underscored by deep discord over the Middle East and the chilly welcome afforded to the new US ambassador.