SOFIA, Bulgaria – Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) rejected on Tuesday Russian charges the West is engaging in political manipulation to expand its influence in Ukraine (search) and other former Soviet republics.
He also challenged Russia to take steps to withdraw its military forces from two former Soviet republics and expressed concern over restrictions in Russia on press freedom and the rule of law.
Powell addressed a meeting of the 55-nation Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (search) after hearing Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov insinuate that the OSCE has used election monitors to fulfill political ambitions in Ukraine and elsewhere.
"We must avoid the ever more deleterious practice of double standards in evaluating electoral processes," Lavrov said. "We mustn't allow the OSCE monitoring to be turned into a political instrument. In the absence of any objective criteria, monitoring of election processes becomes and instrument of political manipulation and a factor for destabilization in a whole range of issues."
Lavrov's comments suggested he believes the West is interested in a power grab in Ukraine, where a recent presidential runoff election was derided by OSCE monitors as fraudulent.
But Powell rejected Russian suggestions that the OSCE has "double standards" and is concentrating its efforts in the former Soviet republics for political reasons.
"I categorically disagree," Powell said, adding that the OSCE is simply abiding by well-established principles in support of fundamental freedoms, democracy and the rule of law.
Mutual suspicions between Russia and the West, particularly the United States, have heightened recently in the wake of the Nov. 21 runoff election in Ukraine, a former Soviet republic that shares a border with Russia to the east and former Soviet bloc countries to the west.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (search) has made clear all along his preference for the pro-Russian candidate, Victor Yanukovych (search), over his Western-oriented opponent, Viktor Yushchenko (search). Buoyed by the Ukrainian electoral commission's ruling that Yanukovych had won, Putin sent him a congratulatory note. He ignored findings by American and European monitors of massive election-day fraud and abuse. A revote is set for Dec. 26.
In comments Monday in Turkey, Putin suggested that it was Yushchenko and his allies that were not playing by democratic rules. He said Yushchenko's forces are exerting pressures "that leave the people with no choice" but to vote for the pro-Western candidate.
At a news conference before his speech, Powell denied that the West was playing sphere of influence games in Ukraine in the name of democracy.
"The people of Ukraine are playing democracy in the name of freedom," he said. He said the people of Ukraine are saying: "'We want free, fair and open elections.'"
In his speech, Powell also took Russia to task for alleged violations of an international treaty by failing to acquire host country agreement to the stationing of its forces in OSCE member states.
"Russia's commitments to withdraw military forces from Moldova, and to agree with Georgia on the duration of the Russian military presence there, remain unfulfilled," he said.
Russia has about 2,000 Russian troops in the Trans-Dniester region of Moldova, guarding giant Soviet-era ammunition depots and acting as peacekeepers. The Russian military was deployed in the separatist province to end a 1992 war that killed some 1,500 people and left Trans-Dniester de-facto independent. There are no precise estimates of the number of Russian troops in Georgia.
As for Russia internal situation, Powell expressed concern about developments "affecting freedom of the press and the rule of law."