Calling for ‘Change’ in Belarus, Rice Meets With Dissidents
The Assoicated Press
By George Gedda

VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met Thursday with seven Belarusian dissidents and expressed admiration for their courage as they seek an end to what she has called “the last dictatorship in the center of Europe.”

Following democratic successes in Georgia and Ukraine, Rice said, “it’s time for a change in Belarus.” An authoritarian pro-Russian president, Alexander Lukashenko, has led Belarus for 11 years.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, here for talks on NATO-Russian ties, apparently interpreted Rice’s comment to mean she was recommending outside intervention to remove Lukashenko.

“We would not of course advocate what some people call regime change anywhere,” Lavrov told reporters. “You cannot impose democracy from the outside.”

Rice was visiting the Baltic country for the NATO foreign ministers meeting. Her statements and her meeting with dissidents is certain to rile Lukashenko, who on Tuesday lashed out at what he described as Western-backed revolutions in other former Soviet republics. He vowed that he would not be ousted.

Later, at a news conference, Rice said the 2006 presidential elections in Belarus offer “an excellent opportunity” for voters there to express their will. She said that international pressure can make a difference as to whether elections are credible or not.

“We will support the idea that elections when they are held should be free and fair,” Rice said.

She declined to take a stand as to whether mass street protests against the Belarus regime are a good idea. Those decisions can only be made by the people of the country, she said.

The seven Belarusian dissidents who Rice met with represented independent civil society groups. Rice told them the United States believes that “while it may be difficult and long and at times even far away, there will be a road to democracy in Belarus.”

Alexander Dobrovoskiy, deputy chair of the United Civic Party, said at a news conference that Rice told them that Belarus society has a right to accurate information and that the independent media needed support, alongside political and other independent civil institutions.

Rice also encouraged the creation of a national movement for change and creation of a credible political alternative to the current regime, Dobrovoskiy said.

The dissidents included the deputy editor of the only remaining independent newspaper in Belarus and a professor at a university that was shut down last year.

During her meeting Wednesday in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Rice offered assurances that the United States is not interested in a power grab in former Soviet republics.

U.S. actions in these states “are not in any way anti-Russian or designed to diminish Russian influence,” Rice said she told Putin.

Concerns about American intentions have accelerated in Russia following the establishment of pro-Western governments in Georgia and Ukraine and the expansion of the U.S. military presence in Central Asia as part of the Bush administration’s fight against terrorism.

Rice has designated Belarus as one of six “outposts of tyranny.”

The congressionally funded International Republican Institute, based in Washington, provides specialized training for democratic youth and women in Belarus. It also provides assistance to reform-oriented parties and literature development and distribution.

In his decade in power, Lukashenko has stifled dissent, persecuted independent media and opposition parties and prolonged his power through fraudulent elections. He also has made no secret of his desire to reunite his country with Russia.

On Wednesday, Belarusian and Russian military officials tentatively agreed to set up a joint military communications and control system.

Rice returns to Washington Thursday night.

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