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Belarus: Will Rice's Words of Support Help or Hurt Opposition?

Demonstrators with photos of disappeared (file photo) Belarusian officials have lashed out at what they say is an attempt by the United States to oust the administration of Alyaksandr Lukashenka. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, on the sidelines of this week's informal NATO summit in Lithuania, yesterday called Belarus the "last true dictatorship in the center of Europe." She also met with members of the Belarusian opposition and pledged Washington's help in aiding the country's democratic process. But it remains uncertain whether Rice's strong rhetoric will help the Belarusian opposition or hurt it.

Prague, 22 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Arriving in Moscow today for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Lukashenka offered a sarcastic analysis of Rice's remarks on Belarus.

"It is good that she knows that there is such a country as Belarus and maybe even has an idea where it is situated. Maybe she even noticed she was flying over that country yesterday or some time before," Lukashenka said. "I don't think there are any terrorists or anything like that [in Belarus], everything seems to be fine."

Lukashenka, notorious for maintaining an iron grip on his increasingly impoverished and isolated country, was responding to Rice's comments yesterday, when she said, "We talked [with opposition politicians] about the desire for democratic development in Belarus and what could be done to support those who are trying to make a difference in that very difficult circumstance."

Other angry voices were also heard in Belarus. Senior lawmaker Mikalay Cherhinets said Rice's comments were a call to overthrow the country's legally elected officials. Belarusian state TV went even further, referring to Rice as a "black panther."

But others in Belarus welcomed Rice's remarks. Aleh Manayeu directs the Independent Institute for Socioeconomic and Political Studies, a Minsk-based polling agency. He said her comments are great encouragement not only for the opposition but also for the silent majority of Belarusians who oppose the regime.

"It is a very strong message for this democratic part of the Belarusian electorate," Manayeu said. "It says, 'We remember you, we appreciate you, we are ready to support you, we will not forget you, you can count on our help.'"

Manayeu says Lukashenka's clampdown on mass media has left many Belarusians with the impression their president -- rather than being an international pariah -- operates with the approval of the global community. Those who oppose his regime often feel they have been forgotten by the West. Rice's statements, he says, show that is not the case.

Lukashenka, who came to power in 1994, is expected to run for reelection next year. A 2004 referendum passed a constitutional amendment allowing Lukashenka to seek an unprecedented third term. The referendum was widely criticized as flawed and unfair. The Belarusian opposition says it does not expect the presidential vote to be any different.

So far, however, the opposition has remained largely divided and weak and provides no viable alternative to Lukashenka. To help counter this, Valery Karbalevich of Strategy, a political analysis center in Minsk, says Rice should move quickly to follow up her words with concrete actions.

"The statement alone will change nothing, of course. It will be effective only if actions follow the statement. These actions should be coordinated and made together with the European Union, and maybe together with other countries -- for example, Ukraine," Karbalevich said.

Such help may be forthcoming. This week the U.S. Senate approved an extra $5 million to support democracy programs in Belarus. U.S. officials say $2 million of that will be spend on what they call the "consolidation" of the country's pro-democracy parties.

Another reason for Rice to act quickly, Karbalevich suggests, is that Minsk will be quick to use her statements yesterday as an opportunity to bolster its anti-Western propaganda. "It is clear that the official propaganda will use these statements in different ways," Karbalevich said. "They will say that Americans, the U.S., want to start a campaign of aggression [against Belarus], just as they did against Iraq. This is an old line used by the Belarusian propaganda, and it is obvious it will be continued to be used."

Rice's comments also drew sharp criticism from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Speaking at the NATO meeting, Lavrov said, "the democratic process and the process of reform cannot be imposed from outside."

Georgia, whose own opposition succeeded in toppling the ruling regime in 2003, this week sent a sign of support. Its parliament adopted a nonbinding resolution on 20 April expressing deep concern over the situation in Belarus, and calling for a defense of the country's democratic progress.

Speaking after yesterday's meeting with Rice, Harri Poganyailo, the deputy director of the Belarus Helsinki Committee, announced plans to hold mass demonstrations in the country this autumn. The rallies will protest the disappearance of some 30 people during the past several years, including several independent journalists and opposition politicians.

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