The European Union was up in arms on Tuesday after French President Nicolas Sarkozy called Russian President Vladimir Putin to congratulate him on Sunday's elections. Most of the EU has been at odds with Putin.
One human rights activist called Sarkozy's call to Putin "realpolitik"
The French leader Nicolas Sarkozy's gesture clearly showed he was not toeing the European Union line and put him at odds with neighbor and close ally Germany. The German government had called Sunday's parliamentary elections in Russia "neither free, fair nor democratic" by Western standards.
Other EU governments have also voiced concern over reports of election irregularities and indeed, the European Union's Portuguese presidency said Tuesday that Russia's legislative election "did not meet international standards and commitments."
The European Union "regrets ... that there were many reports and allegations of media restrictions as well as harassment of opposition parties and NGOs in the run up to the elections and on election day," the presidency said in a statement, as reported by AFP news agency.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso
Other Western goverenments also criticized the polls.
Sarkozy contradicted his own foreign ministry
Sarkozy's telephone call to President Putin -- the leading candidate for Russia's United party that won an landslide victory, securing 315 of 450 seats in parliament -- contradicted not only the EU's stance, but also his own foreign ministry's criticism of the conduct of the poll. The ministry had called for investigations into the allegations of fraud.
Human rights groups were outraged at Sarkozy's move.
"Sarkozy's reaction, which was totally isolated, is both incomprehensible and scandalous," Patrick Baudouin, president of the Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), told AFP.
"This is a bad blow to democrats and human rights campaigners in Russia."
"To give Putin your support after unamimously condemned elections, is to compromise yourself and go against official policy"
on human rights, he added.
He called Sarkozy's call an "excess of zeal that was absolutely unnecessary" and said it was not to France's credit.
EU differs on Russia
President Vladimir Putin's party won over 60 percent of the parliamentary vote
Even all the EU members themselves do not agree about how to handle Russia.
Diplomats told Reuters reporters that the EU's Portuguese presidency was seeking agreement on Monday among the 27 member states on a joint statement on the Russian elections but that it was a challenge to get consensus on the text.
On Tuesday, the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, urged Moscow to address the accusations of electoral irregularities in the Russian poll.
"Everybody is aware that observers have denounced irregularities," said Johannes Laitenberger, spokesman for the commission.
"It is in the interest of Russia to completely clarify all these allegations," he told reporters in Brussels, ac cited by AFP.
One diplomat told Reuters that a draft of an EU statement that circulated on Monday criticized Moscow's treatment of the election monitoring office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and urged the Russian government to permit OSCE monitors into the country to do a long-term survey in advance of a presidential election in March.
Economic interests at stake?
Despite allegations that the opposition had been muzzled and ballots were rigged in the Russian vote, the differing European responses to the election highlight the EU's general problems in speaking with a single voice
towards Russia, which is its major energy supplier.
Former chess champ Kasparov crossed out all parties on his ballot
Sarkozy, for his part, has been critical of Moscow's handling of human rights, but opposition politicians have nonetheless accused him of putting economic interests above rights.
Daniele Artur, Russia expert at Amnesty International in France, told AFP that she was "very disappointed by [Sarkozy's] reaction" to Sunday's elections.
"This is sheer realpolitik. And yet we could have afforded to be much firmer," she said.
The EU similarly backpedaled last week when the Portuguese presidency put out a critical statement three days after the arrest of opposition activists in Russia, including former world chess champion Garry Kasparov. It soon withdrew the statement and issued a milder version without explanation, Reuters reported.