RIGA - During a meeting last weekend in Riga, Latvian and U.S. politicians offered a gesture of support to Belarusian oppositionists, telling them that democratic forces throughout the world would back their struggle to establish a free society.
Alluding to the Baltic Way - a line of 2 million people linking the three Baltic capitals (see story on Page 2) that took place 15 years ago during the independence movement - Senator John McCain, who led the delegation of U.S. senators on their trip to Eastern Europe, told Belarus' democratic forces that, "Today, Mr. [Alexander] Lukashenko may appear firmly in power, but the people of Belarus should know that throughout their struggle the democratic peoples of the world stand beside you."
McCain, one of the most widely respected politicians in the United States, said that despite the tyranny of Lukashenko's regime, there was cause for hope that the democratic opposition would succeed.
As an example he cited several individuals resisting the Luka-shenko dictatorship, including MP and former General Valery Frolov, who was beaten outside his home after conducting a hunger strike.
"These courageous men do not despair," said McCain, "instead they act. They lead the fight for freedom and democracy in Belarus, knowing that tyranny in their country cannot forever rule."
McCain, who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam for five years, had been hoping to visit Minsk with three congressional colleagues during their trip to Eastern Europe, but the group was barred from entering due to fears that it would interfere in the electoral process.
McCain elicited Lukashenko's ire when the U.S. senator lambasted him at a February conference in Riga.
"Lukashenko's rule is an offense to the values whose victory was secured almost everywhere else in Europe with the collapse of the Berlin Wall." The Belarusian dictator, McCain said in his speech, "is the last man standing on the deck of a ship of Soviet ideas that has been sinking in the ocean of history."
The Belarusian opposition, led by MP Frolov, thus came to Riga to meet McCain, Sen. Susan Collins (Republican - Maine), Sen. John Sununu (R - New Hampshire) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R - South Carolina).
Frolov explained that the toughest challenge for the opposition was getting its message to the Belarusian people given the environment of censorship and rigid state control over the private arm of the media.
"We are fighting for our harvest, while elsewhere in the world bombs are exploding, and people are suffering from cancer. These things are not spoken of in Belarus, thus creating an impression that there are no such things, that we live in a protected paradise," said Frolov.
He disagreed with McCain's claim that Lukashenko runs Belarus as if it were the Soviet Union and instead suggested that the president, a former agricultural manager, runs the country as if it were a collective farm, trying to micromanage all the details himself and sharing little.
Frolov admitted that Belarus had committed grave mistakes, especially in 1991 - 92, when it squandered a chance to embark on a true path of democratic development.
The Belarusian MP, who is a member of the oppositionist Respublika faction, was joined by Alexander Bukhvosktov, member of Belarus' Supreme Council, and Vincuk Viacorka, chairman of the Belarusian Popular Front.
Belarus is scheduled to hold parliamentary elections in October, and many fear that the results will be rigged in favor of Lukashenko's regime. What's more, it is widely believed that Lukashenko will try to alter the constitution to allow him to serve a third term.
"We admire your courage and your inner strength," McCain told the opposition representatives, "and we will not forget you. One day your country will reassume its proud place as a free and democratic nation."
Latvian Foreign Minister Artis Pabriks said that Latvia was "ready to fight for democracy together" with its neighbor Belarus.
"Latvia wishes Belarus the best, and we hope that significant changes could take place in that country after the parliamentary elections in October," Pabriks said.
McCain lauded Latvia's post-Soviet accomplishments, calling the Baltic country "one of the world's success stories."
Latvia "is a country that is testament to the aspiration of citizens everywhere." The country, in the senator's words, "has made great strides and is even contending to hold the next NATO summit."