- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 21, 2005

VILNIUS, Lithuania — The United States and its NATO allies ventured into the former Soviet Union yesterday, where Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice clashed with her Russian counterpart at the close of a tough trip that contrasted sharply with her February visit to Europe.

With the alliance holding its first high-level meeting on ex-Soviet soil, Miss Rice took time to meet with opposition leaders of Belarus, a nation heavily dependent on Russian economic aid.

“While it may be difficult and long and at times even far away, there will be a road to democracy in Belarus. We admire your courage, and we admire your dedication and we want you all to know you are in our thoughts,” Miss Rice told a group of seven dissidents who drove from the Belorussian capital of Minsk for the meeting.

The secretary’s remarks followed her criticism of Belarus in Moscow a day earlier, in which she said, “It is time for change.”

Those remarks drew a sharp rebuke from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the NATO meeting, where Mr. Lavrov came to sign a NATO-Russian cooperation agreement.

“We would not, of course, advocate what some people call ‘regime change’ anywhere,” Mr. Lavrov said yesterday.

“I think the democratic process and the process of reform cannot be imposed from outside,” he said.

The public spat between Miss Rice and Mr. Lavrov contrasted with the warm reception Miss Rice received in several Western European capitals in February.

Miss Rice stopped short of supporting street demonstrations in Belarus, emphasizing instead that elections expected next year are the best way to begin a transition toward democracy.

“It is not for the United States to tell people how to fulfill their aspirations for freedom,” she said.

The Belorussian opposition leaders said they plan mass protests in Belarus in the fall, noting they cannot rely only on elections, because they are not likely to be free and fair.

Ruled by authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko for more than a decade, Belarus is eligible for U.S. financial aid to nongovernmental groups mounting reform projects as well as radio and television broadcasts aimed at Belorussians.

Also at yesterday’s ministerial meeting in the capital of former Soviet Lithuania, NATO foreign ministers offered fast-track membership talks to another ex-Soviet republic, Ukraine.

“NATO has invited Ukraine to begin … an intensified dialogue on Ukraine’s aspirations to membership and relevant reforms, without prejudice to any eventual alliance decision,” NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told reporters.

Neither Mr. de Hoop Scheffer nor any of the NATO foreign ministers would back Ukraine’s desire to set 2008 as a date for accession.

The alliance yesterday also signed a landmark Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Russia, which allows NATO troops to participate in military exercises and other events on the territory of their Cold War enemy.

The pact also clears the way for setting up a joint peacekeeping capability.

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