VILNIUS, Lithuania - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice turned the spotlight yesterday on political oppression in Belarus, meeting a group of opposition figures from a country she had earlier labeled "the last true dictatorship in the center of Europe."
She told them that democracy would eventually come to their land, too.
"While it may seem difficult and long, and at times far away, there will be a road to democracy in Belarus," Rice told the seven opposition figures, who included an academic, a 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," she added in remarks at the start of the meeting.
One of the seven who attended the meeting, opposition politician Aleksander Dobrovolskiy, said Rice pledged to support their efforts to open the country's political system to greater participation, a move that would challenge the government of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
"She said the United States and Europe remained committed to helping Belarus become free," Dobrovolskiy told reporters. "We intend to offer an alternative and initiate a mass pressure for that change."
The United States has consistently complained about the repressive nature of Lukashenko's government. Several opponents of that government have disappeared, and, this month, the Bush administration expressed "grave concern" about what it charged was the jailing of Belarusian citizens for political dissent.
Rice's meeting with the opposition group took place in a small conference room on the fringes of an informal gathering of NATO foreign ministers in the Lithuanian capital - the first major session ever held by a country that was once part of the Soviet Union.
Just before her meeting with the Belarus activists, Rice and her NATO colleagues formally reached out to another former Soviet republic, Ukraine, offering an intensive dialogue that would likely lead to eventual membership.
While Ukraine's accession to the alliance would likely be at least three years away, the fact that the issue of Ukrainian membership was under discussion at an alliance meeting in Lithuania underscored how drastically 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.
Another reflection of that change was that Russia showed no signs of curtailing its cooperation with NATO, even though it was clearly unsettled by the spreading influence of the alliance and unhappy about Rice's meeting with the Belarus opposition figures.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov not only attended yesterday's session of the official forum on Moscow's relations with the alliance, known as the Russia-NATO Council, but he also signed an agreement clarifying the status of alliance forces while conducting joint training or while on joint missions with their Russian counterparts.
In a discussion on the Middle East, Lavrov suggested that if international peacekeepers were required to guarantee a possible Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement, coordination between Moscow and major Western nations on a potential deployment could be done through the alliance.
On the issue of Belarus, Lavrov indicated his displeasure with the Rice meeting, but stopped short of suggesting any countermeasures.
"We would of course not advocate what some people call regime change anywhere," he told reporters, when asked about Rice's meeting with the Belarus group. "Democratic reform cannot be imposed from the outside."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.