Putin says Russia needs to protect parliamentary elections from foreign meddling

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday that Russia needed to ensure that its parliamentary vote scheduled for September is free from foreign interference after mass protests calling for the release of one of its most fierce critics.

Tens of thousands of people took to the streets last month to ask Russia to release Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny before the September elections. The 44-year-old opposition politician was arrested and then arrested for alleged violations of parole on his return to Russia. He had been treated in Germany for a nerve agent poisoning he suffered in Siberia last August.

The Kremlin has suggested that Navalny is a CIA asset that is being used by Western intelligence services to destabilize Russia, and Moscow has repeatedly told the European Union to stay out of its internal affairs.

Russia itself has been accused of meddling in several elections abroad, including the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

“The citizens of Russia will make their choice (in parliamentary elections) and we must defend that choice from any attempt at outside interference,” Putin said at a television meeting with the leaders of the political parties represented in the State Duma, the lower house of parliament. .

“We cannot allow any coup against Russia’s sovereignty, against the right of our people to be the lord of their land,” he said, without elaborating on which countries he was referring to.

Navalny said last year that he thought Russia’s intelligence services had poisoned him with a nervous agent because officials saw him as a threat before parliamentary elections.

The Kremlin rejected any suggestion that Putin or the authorities had anything to do with Navalny’s poisoning.

Some European countries have called for sanctions against Moscow for the Navalny case, including suspending construction of the Nord Stream 2 submarine pipeline, designed to export gas from Russia to Germany, bypassing Ukraine.

Putin accused countries that have asked for sanctions against the project of trying to use Nord Stream 2 as a tool to punish Russia.

“Why is everyone circulating around Nord Steam 2?” Putin said.

“They (the western countries) want to force Russia to pay for its geopolitical project in Ukraine,” he added, referring to the conflict that broke out in the east of the country after the annexation of Crimea by Moscow in 2014.

(Reporting by Maria Kiselyova and Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Editing by Bernadette Baum)