Rice and Lavrov Clash Over Belarus 'Dictator'

VILNIUS, Lithuania -- Russia and the United States clashed on Belarus on Thursday as Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov rebuffed a call by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for change in central Europe's "last true dictatorship."

"I think the democratic process and the process of reform cannot be imposed from outside," Lavrov said at a news conference in the Lithuanian capital during a NATO-Russia meeting.

"We would not, of course, advocate what some people call regime change anywhere," he said, reacting to a remark by Rice late Wednesday that Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko ran "the last true dictatorship in the center of Europe," and that it was time for change.

But Rice on Thursday insisted the United States had a role to play in bringing democracy to Belarus, and she urged the world to monitor closely presidential elections there in 2006.

"The 2006 elections really do present an excellent opportunity for the international community to focus on the need for free and fair elections in Belarus," she told a news conference after Lavrov had made his comments.

She said Washington would not intervene directly in Belarus to force change but could and should "shine a spotlight on places where people are still denied freedom."

"We can put that on the international agenda. We can insist on certain standards of behavior by any government, any place in the world, including standards of behavior when it comes to the holding of elections," she said.

Rice met with Belarussian opposition leaders earlier in the day to show support for democracy groups.

The opposition leaders, among them the wife of a journalist who "disappeared" and the head of a university that has been closed, told a Vilnius news conference they wanted to hold mass street protests and would boycott elections they believed Lukashenko would rig.

Rice said Wednesday that there was nothing wrong with Washington supporting pro-democracy groups -- as it did last year during Ukraine's Orange Revolution -- if it led to Belarussians throwing off the "yoke of tyranny."

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana agreed with Rice's call for change. "There is no doubt that the time has come for change. I have said that many, many, many years ago," he told reporters.

The opposition leaders said Rice and Solana's stand had encouraged them to create a nationwide, unified movement behind a single opposition figure.

A senior Belarussian official dismissed Rice's intervention in the debate.

"The Belarussian people choose the authorities, and the Belarussian people determine their fate and future, not the U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice," Deputy Foreign Minister Viktor Gaisenok said. "We are are not pieces in somebody else's game. Nor are we pawns on a chessboard."

Lavrov, who was speaking in English, carefully chose the phrase "regime change" to echo the term Washington used of Iraq. Moscow aligned itself with Paris and Berlin in opposing the U.S. aim of invading Iraq to bring about "regime change" in Baghdad.