Rice Meets With Belarus Opposition Figures

On fringes of a NATO gathering, the secretary pledges support for efforts to open the former Soviet republic's political system.

By Tyler Marshall

Los Angeles Times

April 22, 2005

VILNIUS, Lithuania — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice turned the spotlight Thursday on political oppression in Belarus, meeting with opposition figures from a country she earlier had labeled "the last true dictatorship in the center of Europe."

She told the Belarusians that democracy would eventually come to their land.

"While it may seem difficult and long, and at times far away, there will be a road to democracy in Belarus," Rice told the four men and three women, who included an academic, politician and human rights activists. "We admire your courage and we admire your dedication, and we want you all to know you are in our thoughts."

Opposition politician Aleksander Dobrovolskiy, who attended the meeting, said Rice had pledged to support their efforts to open the country's political system to greater participation, a move that would challenge the government of President Alexander G. Lukashenko.

"She said the United States and Europe remained committed to helping Belarus become free," Dobrovolskiy told reporters after the meeting. "We intend to offer an alternative and initiate a mass pressure for that change."

Lukashenko has ruled Belarus, which borders Lithuania, like it a former Soviet republic, for more than a decade. The United States has complained about the repressive nature of his government. Several opponents of his rule have disappeared.

This month, the Bush administration expressed "grave concern" about what it charged was the jailing of dissidents in Belarus.

Rice's meeting with the opposition group took place in a small conference room on the fringes of an informal gathering of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's foreign ministers here in the Lithuanian capital.

The meeting is the first major NATO session held in a country that once was part of the Soviet Union.

Before her meeting with the Belarusian activists, Rice and her NATO colleagues formally reached out to another former Soviet republic, offering Ukraine an intensive dialogue likely to lead to an eventual membership in the alliance.

Although Ukraine's accession would be at least three years away, the discussion of the issue here underscored how dramatically the political climate has changed in Europe and how quickly barriers to NATO membership have fallen.

"The backdrop reflects just how far NATO has come," alliance Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told reporters at a news conference.

In another reflection of that change, Russia showed no signs of curtailing its cooperation with NATO, though the nation was clearly unsettled by the expanding influence of the alliance and unhappy about Rice's meeting with the Belarusians.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei V. Lavrov not only attended a session Thursday of the Russia-NATO Council, the official forum for Moscow's relations with the alliance, but signed an agreement that clarified the status of alliance forces while they conduct training or missions with their Russian counterparts.

However, he cautioned against outside interference in Belarusian affairs.

"We would, of course, not advocate what some people call regime change anywhere," he told reporters. "Democratic reform cannot be imposed from the outside."

In additional remarks reported by the Itar-Tass news agency, Lavrov said it was "inadmissible to dictate from the outside to Belarusian authorities how they should behave in their own country."

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Russia-Belarus Union, meeting in Moscow, issued a statement calling on the West to "give up the language of threats and pressure, and develop constructive cooperation with the government and National Assembly in order to assist in bolstering democratic principles in Belarus."

The opposition group initially expected to meet only with Rice. However, Javier Solana of the European Union and Lithuanian Foreign Minister Antanas Valionis also participated.

Although the activists indicated that Rice had offered suggestions on tactics, U.S. officials who attended the session said she merely had summed up points that the Belarusians made.

At a news conference later, Rice said it would be "inappropriate" for the United States or any other foreign government to advise the Belarusian opposition.

However, she said the meeting had put Belarusian officials on notice that "they are being watched by the international community, that this is not a dark corner in which this can go on unobserved, uncommented upon as if Belarus somehow was not a part of the European continent."

A presidential election is scheduled in Belarus next year, and U.S. officials, pointing to Ukraine's example, have said they view the vote as a chance for Belarusians to challenge Lukashenko's rule at the polls.

But the officials acknowledge that the opposition in Belarus is less organized and has a lower profile than its counterpart in Ukraine. They note that it also has no strong, unifying figure comparable to Viktor Yushchenko, the opposition politician who won Ukraine's presidency in December.

Dmitry Borodko, head of Volat, an opposition Belarusian youth group, argued that it was impossible to count on a fair presidential election next year.

"We don't want to participate in an election we can't win," he said.

He told reporters that street protests demanding an official explanation about the fate of people who have disappeared was an option under consideration.

Also present at the meeting was Svetlana Zavadskaya, head of We Remember, a civic organization. She is the wife of television journalist Dmitry Zavadsky, one of several people who government opponents say have disappeared without explanation.


Times staff writer Kim Murphy in Moscow contributed to this report.