ANKARA, Turkey – Russian President Vladimir Putin (search) on Monday strongly warned against foreign interference in Ukraine and other former Soviet republics, accusing the West of trying to force its conception of democracy on countries in the region.
"Only the people of any country — and this includes Ukraine in the full sense — can decide their fate," Putin told reporters after meeting with Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer (search).
It was Putin's first public comment since Ukraine's Supreme Court ruled that the second-round presidential election was fraudulent and should be repeated.
On the eve of the decision, he had ridiculed Ukrainian opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko's (search) call for a repeat of the bitterly disputed runoff — again staking his position very clearly on the side of Yushchenko's rival for office, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych (search).
"One can play the role of a mediator but one must not meddle and apply pressure," Putin said in a tacit reference to Western countries, which have been taking part in negotiations to defuse the Ukraine crisis and which Moscow has accused of interference.
"If in the post-Soviet space we allow — every time, for any reason — existing law to be bent to fit the situation or this or that political force, this will not bring stability, but on the contrary will destabilize this large and very important region of the world," Putin said.
Putin rejected Western accusations that he was meddling in Ukraine's election, saying Russia acted "absolutely correctly" in disputes throughout the former Soviet Union, but he suggested that forces in the West were seeking to create new divisions in Europe for their political purposes.
"I don't want, as in Germany, for us to divide Europe into westerners and easterners, into first-class and second-class people, where the first-class people have the opportunity to live by democratic laws and the second category of people are those with, to speak metaphorically, dark political skin," Putin said.
He said the second-class people would be subjected to "a nice but stern man in a helmet who will show them under what political understanding they must live. And if, God forbid, the ungrateful foreigner resists, he will be punished with a club of bombs and missiles, as it was in Belgrade."
"This I consider completely unacceptable."
He suggested voters in Ukraine were under pressure to support the Yushchenko camp, which has put hundreds of thousands of protesters in the streets and has won the support of many Western countries and organizations.
"Of course, it is completely unacceptable for threats to be addressed to people that leave them with no choice, when one of the political leaders says that 'whatever happens, whatever the result of elections, we will take power — including by force,'" Putin said. "This is not just pressure, it is scaring people.
"We in Russia cannot support such a development of events, even if somebody wants to call it democracy."
The Ukrainian opposition had warned repeatedly before the Supreme Court ruling that it was prepared to take "immediate adequate actions" — an apparent hint at more radical measures — if the government tried to drag out the political crisis. Since the ruling, Yushchenko has primarily called on his supporters not to leave their demonstration in Kiev's Independence Square.
But in an interview with Britain's Sunday Telegraph, he spoke more forcefully.
"If the old regime tries to interfere in any way and tries to defy the will of the people and of parliament, we will simply storm our way into the Cabinet office. This is what the people expect," Yushchenko was quoted as saying.
Putin defended Russia's involvement in Yanukovych's campaign, saying it was natural for his government to have closer contacts with the authorities in neighboring countries than with the opposition.