SOFIA, Bulgaria - Amid increasing tension between Washington and Moscow, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell yesterday rejected Russian charges that the West is trying to destabilize Ukraine and bluntly questioned the Kremlin's involvement in former Soviet states and its commitment to democracy at home.
Minutes after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe that its election monitors could be used as an "instrument of political manipulation," Powell told the group, "I categorically disagree."
Powell, who addressed the foreign ministers' meeting of the 55-nation organization, also said, "Fundamental freedoms, democracy and the rule of law are of legitimate concern to us all."
The OSCE monitored and questioned the results of the runoff victory for the Kremlin-backed Ukrainian candidate, finding widespread fraud. Its representatives also have been helping with negotiations toward a resolution.
The departing secretary of state said at a news conference in Sofia earlier Tuesday: "What we have seen [in Ukraine] isn't interfering in democracy - quite the contrary. What we have seen is the international community coming together to support democracy."
Russian President Vladimir V. Putin campaigned for Viktor Yanukovych, the Moscow-leaning presidential candidate, then quickly congratulated Yanukovych on his apparent victory, despite allegations of fraud in the Nov. 21 runoff. The Kremlin repeatedly rejected the fraud charges but now says it will accept the outcome of a Dec. 26 rerun election ordered by the Supreme Court between Yanukovych and Viktor Yushchenko.
In Kiev, lawmakers battled and failed to pass legal reforms aimed at ensuring a fair rematch of the presidential runoff, accusing each other of acting in bad faith, the Associated Press reported.
Several thousand orange-clad protesters besieged parliament and chanted, "Parasites! Parasites!" The demonstrators, supporters of Yushchenko, have grown impatient over lack of progress in approving the electoral amendments sought for the vote.
The OSCE ended its meeting in Sofia without a unified statement supporting the Ukrainian court ruling and the new election - because of Russian resistance, according to a senior State Department official involved in the talks.
Powell also chided the Kremlin for the presence of Russian forces in Moldova and Georgia, despite repeated promises to withdraw, and questioned "developments" inside Russia "affecting freedom of the press and the rule of law."
His sharp tone with Washington's former Cold War rival appeared to mark a departure for the Bush administration, which has generally chosen not to respond directly to Kremlin comments on Ukraine or to criticize Moscow publicly.
Despite Moscow's conciliatory posture on an election rerun, Lavrov recently brought the debate to a new level, raising questions about what he called obvious "double standards" in election monitoring, a charge he repeated before the group yesterday. The statement appeared to be aimed at President Bush's disputed 2000 election victory. The OSCE also observed last month's U.S. presidential election.
Powell's speech appeared to be part of a broader criticism of Russian officials. In Washington, one of his assistants detailed alleged Russian interference in the Ukrainian political process during testimony before the House International Relations Committee, the first such public critique from the administration since the Nov. 21 Ukraine election.
Another senior State Department official traveling with Powell said: "Our goal isn't just to make the Russians mad. The goal is to demonstrate to them that they have a role to play in the international community."
In Moscow, Putin fired his own shot at the United States. He questioned how Iraqi elections could be held next month "under the conditions of occupation by foreign forces," the ITAR-Tass Russian news agency reported after a meeting between Putin and interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. The Russians opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
After they traded their public barbs, Powell and Lavrov held a 30-minute private meeting in Sofia, the first high-level, face-to-face dialogue between officials from the two governments since the Ukrainian crisis erupted.
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.