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Putin Lashes Out At U.S. and E.U.

Ukraine Stance Angers Russian Leader

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 24, 2004; Page A08

MOSCOW, Dec. 23 -- Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday accused the United States and the European Union of employing "double standards" in disputing the results of last month's Ukrainian presidential elections.

At his traditional year-end news conference, Putin emphasized Russia's good relations with the United States but questioned U.S. and European support for a Ukrainian Supreme Court decision overturning the results of the recent Ukrainian vote because of what the court deemed to be widespread fraud. The winner of that election was supported by Moscow, while the loser had advocated closer ties with Europe and the United States. A new election is to be held Sunday.

President Putin defends auction of Yukos unit at news conference. (Dmitry Dukhanin -- Bloomberg News)

"Do you think that the electoral system in the United States is without flaws?" Putin said. "Need I remind you of how their elections were held in the United States?"

Putin compared the Ukrainian case to charges of voter fraud in Afghanistan in the presidential election in October, when Hamid Karzai, the U.S.-backed candidate, was elected in that country's first free presidential ballot. But U.S. and European Union monitors said Ukraine ballot fraud was far reaching, while Afghan irregularities were considered relatively minor.

The Russian leader spoke for three hours with flashes of anger and wry jabs at critics of Russian policy. Among other topics, Putin said that his government had acted legally in selling Yuganskneftegaz, a key asset of the besieged Yukos oil giant, for $9.3 billion to recover some of the billions the government says the company owes in back taxes. The action effectively nationalized the Siberian oil operation, which produces about 1 million barrels daily, or 11 percent of Russia's total oil output.

Putin also questioned the U.S. and European position on recent voting in the conflict-torn Russian republic of Chechnya, where the Kremlin-backed candidate, Alu Alkhanov, won the presidency in August. The United States found what it called "serious flaws" in those elections.

In comparison, Putin cited planned Jan. 30 elections in U.S.-occupied Iraq. Putin said he had "strong doubts about the possibility of holding democratic elections in conditions where the country is fully occupied by foreign troops."

Putin focused on Sunday's vote in Ukraine, a rematch between opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko, a pro-Western candidate, and the pro-Russian candidate, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych.

The Russian leader came close to an acknowledgment, already expressed privately by Kremlin advisers, that Yushchenko would win. Putin said he anticipated good relations with Yushchenko and was open to an immediate visit from him. Yushchenko has said he wants the Kremlin to be his first official destination if he wins, but Putin warned the candidate that he should be careful about who would serve in his administration.

"We expect, though, that among the people surrounding Mr. Yushchenko, there will be no people who base their political ambitions on anti-Russia" or anti-Semitic slogans, Putin said. Putin had originally misspoken by using the word Zionism instead of anti-Semitic, Echo Moskvy radio reported Thursday night.

Putin also criticized a recent statement by President Aleksander Kwasniewski of Poland, who said that for the United States, "Russia without Ukraine is better than Russia with Ukraine."

Kwasniewski has been mentioned as a possible secretary general of NATO. Putin noted that Kwasniewski is a former Communist, saying he remembered him as a member of the Young Communist League, the Komsomol.

"If this is interpreted as an intention to limit Russia's ability to develop relations with its neighbors . . . that amounts to a wish to isolate the Russian federation," he said. Putin added that he did not think Kwasniewski was speaking on behalf of the United States.

Putin said he would ask President Bush about the statement when the leaders meet in February. He said that Bush was a "decent man" and that the United States and Russia were allies in the war on terrorism.

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