Ukraine calls on Belarus to open talks with opposition - 21 March, 2006 - News

Ukraine 's Foreign Ministry on Tuesday urged Belarus to refrain from using force against protesters gathered in central Minsk in what the Belarusian opposition hopes will be a replay of the peaceful 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine . Belarusian opposition activists have looked to Ukraine 's Orange Revolution protests as a model in their efforts to discredit Sunday's presidential vote, which official results declare authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko won by a landslide.

"We call on Belarusian authorities to safeguard its people's right to a peaceful gathering ... to be tolerant and avoid any forceful actions against its citizens," Foreign Ministry spokesman Vasily Filipchuk told reporters. The Belarusian activists have set up a small tent camp on a main Minsk square that echoes the much larger tent city that sprouted in Ukraine in 2004.

The Orange Revolution protests were triggered by widespread election fraud in a Ukrainian presidential election, which led to that election being declared invalid. A court ordered a revote, which was won by the pro-western candidate, Viktor Yushchenko. Filipchuk urged Lukashenko to open talks with the opposition and take steps toward democracy.

"Democratic society is waiting for concrete steps from Belarusian authorities, directed at bringing democracy to every aspect of life," he said, reading an official statement. Filipchuk added that Ukraine shares international concerns that Sunday's presidential vote was neither free nor fair, but Kiev does not support Western calls to isolate its neighbor.

"We have very deep historic relations with Belarus and last year we had active trade," Filipchuk said. "For us, this country is close and a nation that deeply concerns us ... Our position is that dialogue between Belarus and the world community must be held so that Belarus will become more open."

Yushchenko promised to be a voice of democracy in the post-Soviet area, but he has taken a far more cautious role toward neighboring Belarus than his other post-Soviet ally, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, who also came to power after mass protests against election fraud. Saakashvili has been a harsh critic of Lukashenko.

The Foreign Ministry said it was particularly concerned about the safety of Ukrainian citizens in Belarus . Some young Ukrainian activists, who played a key role in whipping up enthusiasm for the Orange Revolution, have gone to Minsk to aid the Belarusian opposition. Ukraine 's media has also descended on Belarus , with the protests leading many news programs here, reports the AP.

N.U.