VILNIUS, Lithuania, April 21 -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gave a boost Thursday to stalled efforts to oust the government of Belarus, holding a high-profile meeting with key opposition figures from the former Soviet republic. Russian and Belarusan officials criticized her actions and statements as interference.
Rice, who has scorned the Belarus government as "the last dictatorship in Europe," said she arranged the session in the Lithuanian capital to find out how the United States and other countries could assist the opposition in winning greater political freedom. The Belarusan government "should know that their behavior is being watched. . . . This is not a dark corner in which things can go unobserved, uncommented on," she told reporters.
French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier, left, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the NATO meeting in Lithuania.
(Mindaugas Kulbis -- AP)
Rice was in Vilnius to attend a meeting of foreign ministers from NATO countries. The group agreed to offer to put Ukraine, with its new, Western-oriented government, on a fast track to membership in the alliance.
Borys Tarasyuk, Ukraine's foreign minister, told reporters his country could meet NATO's conditions for political and military reforms within three years; NATO officials declined to set a timetable.
The Belarusan opposition leaders said Rice told them the United States wanted to help them in four key areas: promoting independent news media, supporting political initiatives toward democracy, encouraging a national movement for free government and unifying the opposition around a candidate to challenge President Alexander Lukashenko in 2006.
The seven Belarusans included the president of a shuttered university, an organizer of young people, a newspaper editor and the wife of a journalist who disappeared under mysterious circumstances.
U.S. officials say they don't believe Belarus is ripe for the kind of street protests that, in the last year and a half, have swept out governments in three other former Soviet republics -- Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. Rice's meeting appeared to be aimed at preparing opposition officials for the elections, which Rice said would be an "excellent opportunity" to challenge the government.
The opposition figures said they didn't expect the vote to be fair and were planning to press their case with large street protests in the fall. They said they were trying to make the plight of people who had disappeared into an organizing issue.
In the meeting, Rice noted that outrage over similar disappearances in Argentina helped end military rule there and that "society needs an issue around which to unite," according to Aleksander Dobrovolsky, deputy chairman of the United Civil Party, an opposition party.
Before arriving here Wednesday, Rice spent two days in Moscow assuring Russian officials that U.S. support of democratic revolutions on its border was not intended to minimize its influence.
Yet the NATO event here showed how drastically the world has changed since the end of the Cold War: Lithuania, a NATO member, was once part of the Soviet Union.
Though street revolutions have brought changes in the region, the opposition officials from Belarus told reporters they faced a tougher struggle because Lukashenko, who has ruled since 1994, has brutally repressed dissent.
"The government in Belarus is prepared to use force at any moment," said Lyudmila Petina, chair of the Christian Women's Democratic Movement, which advocates gender equality.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who met here with NATO foreign ministers to sign an agreement on joint military training, said "we would not of course advocate what some people call regime change anywhere," he said. "I think the democratic process and the process of reform cannot be imposed from outside."
Sergei Martynov, the foreign minister of Belarus, told the Interfax news agency on Wednesday that "the Belarusan people choose a government, and it is for Belarusan people and not Condoleezza Rice to decide about the future of the country."
In his annual address to parliament on Tuesday, Lukashenko said such revolutions were "plain banditry" and would not take place in his country.