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Rice meets with Belarus opposition

From Elise Labott
CNN State Department Producer

United States
Alexander Lukashenko
Condoleezza Rice

VILNIUS, Lithuania (CNN) -- U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice lent political support Thursday to Belarus opposition members aiming to oust President Alexander Lukashenko.

During her three-day trip to Moscow and Lithuania, Rice took aim at the leadership of Belarus, a former Soviet republic that is now an independent country.

On Thursday, Rice met with members of the opposition on the sideline of a NATO foreign ministers' meeting in Vilnius. (Full story)

"We think the road to democracy in Belarus, while it may seem difficult and, at times, even far away, there will be a road to democracy in Belarus," she told the group.

Briefing reporters after the meeting, members of the group said Rice stressed the importance of a national movement toward democracy.

The United States has been very critical of Lukaskenko's iron-fisted rule. When he extended his term last October in an allegedly fraudulent referendum condemned by the international community, U.S. President George W. Bush signed the Belarus Democracy Act.

The legislation authorizes U.S. assistance for democratic political parties, non-governmental organizations and media, prohibits U.S. aid to the government in Belarus except for humanitarian goods, and requires the United States to reject loans for Belarus from international financial institutions.

"We know that our elections have not been elections for some time," said Aleksander Dovrovolskiy, deputy chair of the United Civil Party and one of the opposition members who met with Rice.

He added that the opposition would "initiate a mass pressure" for a change in leadership.

"We can't win except taking to the streets," said Dimitri Brodko, a youth activist in the meeting with Rice.

In an interview with CNN on Wednesday, Rice called Belarus "the last remaining true dictatorship in the heart of Europe" and said she would hope to "begin to see some democratic development" in that country. (Full story, Transcript)

"If it brings about democratic progress, why is it a bad thing for people to throw off the yoke of tyranny and decide they want to control their own futures?" she said.

Later Wednesday, during a news conference with the Lithuanian president, Rice said, "It's time for a change in Belarus."

The United States has supported popular uprisings over the the last year and a half in three former Soviet republics -- Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.

Lukashenko has condemned the political upheavals in those places as Western-inspired and vowed there will be no such "colored revolutions" emerging in his country -- a reference to Georgia's so-called "Rose Revolution," Ukraine's "Orange Revolution" and Kyrgyzstan's "Tulip Revolution."

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