U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been taking heart in the democratic upheavals in the former Soviet Union. She thinks Belarus should be next.
Rice was in Lithuania for a NATO foreign ministers conference, and planned a meeting Thursday with opposition leaders from Belarus.
Belarus "is really the last dictatorship in the center of Europe, and it's time for a change in Belarus," Rice told reporters Wednesday after a visit to Russia.
Her visit to this Baltic state, which borders on Belarus, is a somewhat uncomfortable reminder for Russia about how many of its former republics have turned decisively to the West following the collapse of communism.
Lithuania is now a member of NATO and this week is hosting an alliance foreign ministers meeting for the first time.
During her meeting Wednesday with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Rice offered assurances that the United States is not interested in a power grab in former Soviet republics.
U.S. actions in these states "are not in any way anti-Russian or designed to diminish Russian influence," Rice said she told Putin.
Russia's concerns about American intentions in the region have accelerated following the establishment of pro-Western governments in Georgia and Ukraine and the expansion of the U.S. military presence in Central Asia as part of U.S. President George W. Bush's fight against terrorism.
Rice has designated Belarus as one of six "outposts of tyranny."
The International Republican Institute, based in Washington and funded by the U.S. Congress, provides specialized training for democratic youth and women in Belarus. It also provides assistance to reform-oriented parties and literature development and distribution.
Inspired by the ouster of Kyrgyzstan President Askar Abayev, opponents of Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko staged a large protest outside his offices last month. About two dozen demonstrators were arrested and sentenced to brief prison terms.
In his decade in power, Lukashenko has stifled dissent, persecuted independent media and opposition parties and prolonged his power through fraudulent elections. He also has made no secret of his desire to reunite his country with Russia.
On Wednesday, Belarusian and Russian military officials tentatively agreed to set up a joint military communications and control system.
Lukashenko has repeatedly accused the United States and NATO of harboring aggressive intentions against Belarus.
"This is a matter of life or death," Lukashenko said Wednesday during a meeting with visiting Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, who flew to Belarus after a dinner Tuesday night with Rice in Moscow.
Rice returns to Washington Thursday night.
GEORGE GEDDA, Associated Press Writer