SOFIA, Bulgaria, Dec. 7 -- U.S. and Russian officials clashed Tuesday at a European security forum over Ukraine's disputed presidential runoff election.
In a sharp exchange, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned of "new lines of division" and destabilization in Europe because of tensions over the crisis. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell rebutted the attack and offered rare criticism of Russia, pressing it to remove its military forces from two former Soviet republics and halt a slide in press freedoms and the rule of law.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, left, in Sofia, Bulgaria, with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell for a ministerial meeting, chided international election observers in Ukraine's disputed runoff, saying that "monitoring of election processes becomes an instrument of political manipulation."
(Stoyan Nenov -- Reuters)
Ukraine's Supreme Court has ordered a second runoff election on Dec. 26, following mass demonstrations protesting alleged widespread fraud in voting two weeks ago in which the pro-Moscow prime minister, Viktor Yanukovych, was declared the winner against Viktor Yushchenko, who supports closer ties to NATO and Western Europe. International election monitors said the Nov. 21 vote was rigged.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a 55-nation group that began as a forum for dialogue during the Cold War, sent 600 observers to monitor the balloting.
In Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, tension over the vote continued Tuesday as parliament adjourned for the day without voting on measures meant to secure a fair rerun of the presidential vote. Opposition forces are pressing for immediate passage of the reforms, but other factions say the changes must be made simultaneously with proposals that would reduce the powers of the president.
Russian officials have suggested that by paying such close attention to the election, the United States and Western Europe are making a power grab in what is traditionally a Russian sphere of influence. Western analysts, meanwhile, have accused Putin of trying to reassemble part of the Soviet empire by installing pliant leaders in countries on Russia's borders.
Speaking at the OSCE's annual ministerial meeting, Lavrov denounced what he called the "ever more deleterious practice of double standards" in monitoring elections, an allusion to the disputed 2000 U.S. presidential election.
"We mustn't allow the OSCE monitoring to be turned into a political instrument," Lavrov said. "In the absence of any objective criteria, monitoring of election processes becomes an instrument of political manipulation and a factor for destabilization in a whole range of issues."
In response, Powell told participants at the forum that "I categorically disagree" with the notion of "double standards" or that the OSCE has concentrated its efforts in the former Soviet republics for political reasons. "All OSCE participating states signed up to the proposition that fundamental freedoms, democracy and the rule of law are of legitimate concern to us all," he said.
The OSCE is prepared to almost double the number of observers it will send to the new Ukrainian election, officials said. But disagreements over the role of monitors prevented the group, which operates on consensus, from agreeing on a communique.
Despite a suggestion from President Vladimir Putin of Russia on Monday that he supported a new election, Russia and Belarus blocked a statement -- offered by the Ukrainian delegation -- that would have recognized the Ukrainian Supreme Court ruling and offered backing for the new election, U.S. officials said.
In his remarks, Powell also said the United States would not ratify a 1999 treaty limiting the number of conventional forces in Europe until Russia fulfills commitments made that year to remove troops from Georgia and Moldova. More than 1,400 Russian troops are stationed in Moldova's breakaway Russian-speaking region of Transdniester, and 5,000 to 6,000 troops are at two bases in Georgia.
He also cited Belarus as an "egregious example" of failure to live up to commitments on human rights and democracy.
In Washington, a State Department official told a congressional panel Tuesday that there were "credible reports" of Russian financial backing for Yanukovych. John F. Tefft, deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, said that U.S. officials have complained about "the role of Russian citizens" in the election.
But in general, the Bush administration has held back from directly criticizing Russia's role in the election or the apparent larger Russian strategy of influencing elections in countries on its border, and Powell did not mention them in his remarks at the OSCE forum. He also said nothing about Russia's human rights record in Chechnya, where Moscow's forces continue to fight separatists.
Powell and Lavrov also had a private, 30-minute discussion, their first meeting since the disputed Ukrainian vote. An aide to Powell reported that the secretary of state felt that he and Lavrov "for one of the first times" were able to have a constructive conversation rather than merely reciting talking points.
Later, when a Bulgarian college student asked Powell at a youth forum whether the Cold War was coming back, Powell reassured her, saying it was not returning because "we have good relations with Russia" and he was able to speak candidly to Lavrov.