VILNIUS - U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice fired a verbal volley at Belarus last week in Vilnius, calling the despotic regime of Alexander Lukashenko Europe's last dictatorship.
For Lithuania, which hosted the summit of NATO foreign ministers, the vitriol from Rice, who has been judged to be the most influential woman in the world, helped mark the country's one-year anniversary of alliance membership.
"This is the last true dictatorship in the center of Europe. I think the time has come for big changes in the country," she said.
Her comments elicited poignant responses from Russia and Belarus. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking to journalists in Vilnius, said, "We would not of course be advocating what some people call regime changes anywhere. We think the democratic process, the process of reform cannot be imposed from outside."
Belarusian President Lukashenko was less diplomatic. "It is good that she knows that there is such a country as Belarus and maybe even has an idea where it is situated," he said sardonically. "Maybe she even noticed she was flying over that country yesterday or some time before."
Sarcasm aside, Rice's message upped the ante in the battle for Belarus' future. To accentuate her stance, Rice even met with representatives of the Belarusian opposition who have been fighting against the Lukashenko regime for years.
Analysts said Rice's show of support for democratic forces in Belarus set a precedent that she expects NATO's newest members 's Lithuania and to a lesser extent Latvia 's to follow up on.
Columnist Ruta Grineviciute of the Respublika daily went so far as to call Rice "Lithuania's foreign minister." "Condoleezza did what President Valdas Adamkus failed to do during his annual report in Parliament last week. She set the guidelines for Lithuanian foreign policy in the future. And they [the guidelines] speak about the democratization of Belarus," Grineviciute wrote.
Otherwise, the high-profile meeting stole the spotlight from issues that had previously consumed Lithuanians 's the election of a new pope, the basketball team's ULEB victory, the president's annual report and last week's resignation of Finance Minister Algirdas Butkevicius.
Vilnius had never received so many high-ranking guests at one time. The April 20 's 21 forum attracted some 500 high-ranking guests, including NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and French Foreign Minister Michael Barnier.
The government allocated nearly 6 million litas (1.7 million euros) to the event at the beginning of this year, the biggest part providing for security.
Although Rice arrived in Vilnius after an intense visit in Moscow, she was in good spirits and met President Valdas Adamkus directly after flying in. Despite a shorter than planned meeting and the news conference that followed, the U.S. secretary and Lithuanian head of state discussed questions of equal importance to both countries.
Rice sounded pleased about everything Lithuania's success in building a democratic country. She said that the Baltic country served as the perfect example for what a free state could do.
Speaking to alliance ministers, she expressed the United States' wish that members contribute more significantly to the mission in Afghanistan. The U.S. official, however, failed to mention any specific figures.
Rice also referred to Adamkus' role in the political crisis in Ukraine last winter. In her speech, mentioned the wave of democratic revolutions in the former Soviet republics and highlighted Lithuania's crucial role as a significant and reliable political partner in spreading democratic values to the East.
In closing the meeting, de Hoop Scheffer thanked Lithuanian authorities for the opportunity to organize such a "wonderful political forum to discuss the most acute issues for the entire world."