Sat May 7, 2005 04:25 PM ET

Belarus denounces U.S., Baltic 'interference'

By Andrei Makhovsky

MINSK (Reuters) - Belarus, its president denounced in Washington as Europe's last dictator, accused its Baltic neighbors and the United States on Saturday of interfering in the country's internal affairs.

Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko is due to attend ceremonies in Moscow on Monday marking 60 years since the end of World War II in Europe alongside President Bush and other leaders.

Bush, speaking after talks with Baltic leaders in neighboring Latvia earlier on Saturday, said there should be free elections in Belarus and ruled out any secret U.S. deal with Moscow to let Lukashenko keep power.

This drew an angry response from the foreign ministry in Minsk, saying 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 said.

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.


Lukashenko separately poured scorn on the Riga talks and suggested the leaders of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were well advised "to study a map and show their boss (Bush) where Belarus is located."

"It is good that we are being discussed ... We welcome such discussions, but I fear any other sort of talk will end badly for the leaders of the Baltic states," he told war veterans.

"In world practice, there has never yet been an instance in which a situation of some sort in a country is discussed without the representatives of that country being present."

Lukashenko, who sees Russia as his main ally, said Belarus had no wish to frighten anyone.

"But let me just say that we intend to fight, as we always have fought, to defend our land, our children, our families."

U.S. appeals for change in Belarus, a country of 10 million wedged between Russia and new European Union members Poland, Latvia and Lithuania, have run into resistance from Russia.

Moscow views upheavals in ex-Soviet states with anxiety and says reforms cannot be engineered from outside.

Some commentators suggest Belarus is also ripe for revolt, but Lukashenko has tightened control in recent months and the liberal and nationalist opposition remains small and divided.

One group known as Zubr (bison) said police swooped on a Minsk rally and detained 51 activists holding portraits of three opposition politicians missing without explanation since 1999.

Police said the demonstrators were released within hours.