President Vladimir Putin used a year-end news conference yesterday to sharply criticize a wide range of U.S. actions and attitudes on Ukraine, Chechnya, the sale of a Russian...

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MOSCOW — President Vladimir Putin used a year-end news conference yesterday to sharply criticize a wide range of U.S. actions and attitudes on Ukraine, Chechnya, the sale of a Russian oil firm and the issue of democracy within Russia.

Putin stressed good relations with the United States but questioned the U.S. and European position on the Ukraine elections, where the Russian-backed candidate had been declared the victor. Ukraine’s Supreme Court invalidated the result and a new election will be held Sunday.

Putin compared the Ukrainian case to charges of voter fraud in Afghanistan in presidential elections in October, when Hamid Karzai, the U.S.-favored candidate, was elected in that country’s first free presidential ballot. But U.S. and European Union monitors said that Ukraine ballot fraud was widespread while Afghan irregularities were considered relatively minor.

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Putin rubbed his finger on the desk to illustrate his angry discourse on Afghan elections, saying that voters’ fingerprints were a weak guarantee against fraud.

The Russian leader spoke for three hours with flashes of anger and wry jabs at critics of Russian policy.

Putin defended the purchase of Yukos oil assets by a state-owned company, saying the state was just protecting its interests in moving to get control of the second-largest oil-production facility in Russia.

The state-owned Rosneft oil company bought a little-known company, BaikalFinansGroup, that just days earlier had purchased Yukos’ most important production unit, Yuganskneftegaz, auctioned by Russian authorities who say the oil giant owes $28 billion in taxes.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, founder of Yukos, has been in jail for the last 14 months and is on trial charged with fraud and tax evasion. Putin cast the moves against Yukos as part of efforts to uproot corruption and shady bookkeeping. But Kremlin critics have described it as a political vendetta for Khodorkovsky’s rival political activities.

Putin blasted a Houston bankruptcy court’s effort to block the auction Sunday of the Yuganskneftegaz unit. The U.S.-based executives of Yukos had gone to court to block the sale.

“I am not sure that the judge knows where Russia is, and I am a little doubtful about her professional background,” he said.

With Russia already feeling hemmed in by U.S. bases in formerly Soviet Central Asia and U.S. military trainers in Georgia, Putin blamed the United States, without elaborating, for a policy on Chechnya “aimed at creating elements that would destabilize the Russian Federation,” the alliance of former Soviet republics.

In Chechnya, the Kremlin-backed candidate, Alu Alkhanov, won presidential elections in August. The U.S. had found “serious flaws” in those elections.

In comparison, Putin cited planned Jan. 30 elections in U.S.-occupied Iraq. “In Iraq, 100 percent of whose territory is occupied, it’s okay to hold elections,” Putin said. “I have strong doubts,” he said, “about the possibility of holding democratic elections in conditions where the country is fully occupied by foreign troops.”

Putin focused on elections this Sunday in Ukraine, a rematch of Nov. 21 balloting between opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko, a pro-Western candidate, and the pro-Russian candidate, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych.

The Russian leader came close to an acknowledgment, expressed privately by Kremlin advisers, that Yushchenko will win on Sunday.

But he criticized a recent statement by Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, who said that for the United States, “Russia without Ukraine is better than Russia with Ukraine.”

“If this is interpreted as an intention to limit Russia’s ability to develop relations with its neighbors … that amounts to a wish to isolate the Russian federation,” he said. Putin added that he did not think Kwasniewski was speaking on behalf of the United States.

Putin said he would ask Bush about the statement when the leaders meet in February.

The steely-eyed former KGB officer tried to reassure a reporter that Russia would not turn back to the Soviet era.

“I don’t think we should move toward an authoritarian state, especially a Soviet-style authoritarian state. That wouldn’t help create favorable conditions for economic development and would limit the society’s ability to control the government. That would be excessive,” he said.

Referring to past criticism of the internal changes in Russia, he said brusquely: “I have to say I am not ecstatic about everything that happens in the United States either.”

“Do you think that the electoral system in the United States is entirely flawless? Do I have to recall the last [presidential] elections in the United States or the one before?” he said.

Compiled from The Washington Post, The Associated Press, Los Angeles Times and Reuters