( AFP ) - Russia on Tuesday strongly defended the mass detention of anti-Kremlin demonstrators in the latest salvo of a war of words with the West before parliamentary elections.
Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov said riot police "acted very correctly" when they detained more than 200 people and jailed chess legend turned opposition leader Garry Kasparov during the dispersal of weekend protests in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, Interfax reported.
The row added to controversy around Sunday's parliamentary elections which Putin's United Russia is forecast to win easily, amid accusations that anti-Kremlin politicians are being repressed, and the refusal by Europe's top monitoring body to observe the polls.
Late Monday, US President George W. Bush added his voice to condemnations from across the European Union, saying he was "deeply concerned about the detention of numerous human rights activists and political leaders."
"I am particularly troubled by the use of force by law enforcement authorities to stop these peaceful activities," Bush said in a statement.
He was speaking shortly after Putin accused foreigners of "sticking their noses" into Russia's affairs and claimed the United States had pressured European election monitors to boycott Sunday in order to "discredit" the polls.
The monitors, from the Office for Democracy Institutions and Human Rights, say they cannot cover the Russian vote because Moscow refused to create the conditions for an objective mission.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov joined the increasingly heated exchange during a trip to Washington, saying that that demands on Moscow to ensure free speech and the right to protest were "superflous."
"This is fixed in our constitution," Lavrov was quoted as saying by Interfax.
Putin, 55, is standing as the lead candidate of United Russia, although his second term as president does not run out until next year after March 2 polls in which he is barred from seeking re-election.
Since Putin joined the parliamentary contest, the election has increasingly been portrayed on state-monopolised television as an unofficial referendum on Putin's popularity.
That has fed speculation that Putin's real goal is to retain power despite being required to step down next year. Putin himself has said that a big win by United Russia would give him the "moral right" to retain a leadership role.
He has suggested he could serve as prime minister or hold some other, as yet undefined, position of major influence.
Analysts say another possibility is that Putin will find a way to circumvent the constitutional ban on serving more than two consecutive Kremlin terms and simply remain president.
Although the main European monitoring body will be absent Sunday, 30 parliament deputies drawn from 19 European countries will attend, a spokesman for their group, the parliamentary assembly of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said Tuesday.
"We expect to be able to deliver a well-informed, balanced and fair judgement on Monday" at a news conference scheduled for 12:00 pm (0900 GMT), Spencer Oliver said.
He declined to be drawn on the likelihood of a free and fair vote, saying the elections "are potentially competitive."