Clinton faults Russia over vote, denounces Belarus

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US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Russia to account Tuesday for flawed elections and denounced ex-Soviet Belarus for persecuting democracy campaigners, sending a signal by meeting dissidents.

Speaking at a high-level conference of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Clinton said those who fail to stem rights abuses "undermine the people's confidence in their governments".

"And as we have seen in many places, and most recently in the Duma elections in Russia, elections that are neither free not fair have the same effect," she said at the start of the two-day OSCE gathering in Lithuania.

In Germany on Monday, Clinton had flagged US concerns over Russia's weekend election, which delivered a victory for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's United Russia party, albeit with a reduced majority.

The 56-nation OSCE's members include the United States and Russia, but its election monitoring arm has locked horns with Moscow over past ballots.

After Sunday's polls, OSCE observers highlighted violations including ballot-box stuffing.

"They show that Russia is not fully complying with OSCE standards," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle told the Vilnius gathering. "We expect that there will be transparency in the follow up to this."

While top pro-Kremlin lawmaker Konstantin Kosachev Tuesday warned that Clinton's criticism threatened to bring the two sides' relations to a new low, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov did not address the issue in Vilnius.

Instead, he took to the podium to denounce what he dubbed misuse of UN resolutions for "illegal ends" in conflicts, blasting "double standards".

He did not elaborate, but his remarks appeared to reiterate accusations that the West is stirring a revolt against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose regime been widely denounced for a months-long bloody crackdown on protests.

Clinton also slammed the "unremitting persecution" of the opposition in Lithuania's ex-Soviet neighbour Belarus, where strongman President Alexander Lukashenko has jailed a string of political opponents in defiance of a series of longstanding US and European Union sanctions.

Westerwelle said the situation there was "shameful for Europe".

Clinton later met with dissidents from Belarus.

"We recognise that this has been a brutally difficult year for the people of Belarus," she told them.

"We know that every day that there is a new arrest, or a new restrictive law or further harassment against civil society," she said.

"We have great confidence in your being on the right side of history," she added, saying they were an inspiration to activists worldwide.

Belarussian campaigner Natalia Radina, exiled in Lithuania, was among those who met Clinton.

"I said the US must push the EU to impose real economic sanctions against Lukashenko's regime. What the EU is doing now is only symbolic," Radina, editor of opposition website Charter 97, told AFP.

In her OSCE speech, Clinton insisted that human rights must be defended online.

"We must recognise that rights exercised in cyber space deserve as much protection as those exercised in real space," she said.

US officials underscored concerns that bloggers and other journalists and activists using electronic media are being targeted in Belarus and Russia.

Former Soviet-ruled Lithuania, a European Union member since 2004, organised the conference to wrap up its year-long term at the helm of the OSCE. Ireland takes over in 2012.

The OSCE, which aims to monitor and encourage democracy and human rights in order to enhance security, was spun out of a body created to ease Cold War tensions.

© 2011 AFP

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