Sat May 7, 2005 06:31 PM ET
By Steve Holland
RIGA (Reuters) - President Bush said on Saturday free elections should be held in Belarus but the Russian-backed country swiftly accused the United States and its Baltic neighbors of interfering in its internal affairs.
Bush, who calls Belarus Europe's last remaining dictatorship, said in Latvia there would no secret deal with Moscow to let President Alexander Lukashenko stay in power.
Lukashenko is due to attend ceremonies in Moscow on Monday marking 60 years since the end of World War II in Europe alongside Bush and other leaders.
"The only deal that I think is a necessary deal for people is the deal of freedom," Bush told a joint news conference with the leaders of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia in the Latvian capital.
"They should be allowed to express themselves in free and open and fair elections in Belarus," he added, keeping up U.S. pressure on Belarus to have fair presidential elections in 2006.
There are fears in Belarus' neighboring Baltic countries that Lukashenko will cut a deal to remain in power. Russia and the United States have clashed over Belarus with Moscow rebuffing calls by Washington for change.
Bush's comments drew an angry response from the foreign ministry in Minsk, which said any U.S. attempt to "thrust a wedge between the fraternal peoples of Belarus and Russia will fail" and that Belarus would determine its own path of democratic development.
"The Baltic states are embarking on a dangerous path of interference in Belarus's internal affairs. This is unacceptable and can create regional tensions," it said in a statement.
"Attempts by certain countries to implant democratic values in Belarus 'through the back door' are at variance with the building of civilised and pragmatic relations," it added.
Lukashenko, accused of crushing dissent and rigging elections, says he will tolerate no upheavals like those which unseated governments in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan.
He is eligible to run for a third term as president in 2006 after securing a constitutional change in a referendum last year dismissed as rigged in the West.
Police in Minsk on Saturday briefly detained several dozen opposition activists at a rally staged in defiance of a ban.
Asked about the possibility of striking a deal to help Lukashenko, Bush said: "Can you make a deal to determine somebody else's fate?
"I think that's what we're lamenting here today about what happened to the Baltics -- one of those secret deals among large powers that consigns people to a way of governing. No, we don't make secret deals," he said.
Bush was apparently referring to the secret 1939 pact under which Hitler and Stalin divided up spheres of influence in eastern Europe, leading to Soviet control over the Baltics.
Lukashenko, accused abroad of crushing opponents and the media, has warned the West against stirring up trouble in the country of 10 million people wedged between Russia and European Union members Poland, Latvia and Lithuania.
(Additional reporting by Andrei Makhovsky in Minsk)