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Pressing change for Belarus, Rice meets with opposition

Urges greater political freedoms

VILNIUS, Lithuania -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gave a boost yesterday to stalled efforts to oust the government of the former Soviet republic of Belarus, holding a high-profile meeting with key opposition figures. Russian and Belarussian 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 to find out how the United States and other countries could assist the opposition in winning greater political freedoms. The Belarussian government ''should know that their behavior is being watched . . . this is not a dark corner in which things can go unobserved, uncommented on," she said.

Rice was in Vilnius to attend a meeting of foreign ministers from NATO alliance countries. In that session, the group agreed to offer to put Ukraine, with its new Western-oriented government, on a fast track toward membership in the alliance.

Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk of Ukraine said his country could meet NATO's conditions within three years; NATO officials declined to set a timetable.

The Belarus opposition leaders said Rice told them that the United States wanted to help them in four key areas: promoting independent 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 an election in 2006.

The seven Belarussians 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.

US officials say they do not believe Belarus is ripe for the kind of street protests that in the last year and a half have swept 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 current government.

The opposition figures said they do not expect the vote will be fair and so are planning to press their case with large street protests in the fall. They said they are trying to make the plight of people who have disappeared into a prime organizing issue.

In the meeting, Rice noted that similar disappearances helped end military rule in Argentina 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 US support of democratic revolutions on its border was not intended to minimize its influence in the region.

Yet the NATO event here showed how quickly the world has changed since the end of the Cold War: The gathering was held in Lithuania, a NATO member that was once part of the Soviet Union.

Although street revolutions have brought changes of government in three former Soviet republics, the opposition officials from Belarus said they face a much 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, chairwoman of the Christian Women's Democratic Movement, which advocates for gender equality.

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