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Europe

NATO and Russia Fall Out Over Belarus

Russia and NATO clashed Friday in a heated exchange over the jailing of Belarusian opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich for attending a political demonstration.

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Convenient friends: Putin offers Lukashenko support in return for antagonizing the West

"Belarus was one of the issues discussed where Russia and the alliance are quite far apart," NATO chief Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said after talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in the Bulgarian capital Sofia.

"We did not see eye to eye," he added, a day after calling Milinkevich's arrest a sign of "anti-democratic behavior".

De Hoop Scheffer said Belarus had failed to live up to NATO values enshrined in the Partnership for Peace agreements signed between the alliance and many ex-communist states after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

But Lavrov responded by saying: "These issues have to be decided through engagement and dialogue, not through isolation."

Belarus' authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko won a landslide victory in March 19 presidential elections that sparked protests at home and condemnation abroad.

The European Union and the United States slapped diplomatic sanctions in the wake of the vote and a crackdown against opposition activists protesting Lukashenko's victory.

Milinkevich, who came a distant second in the election, was sentenced on Thursday to 15 days in jail along with three other opposition figures for attending a demonstration declared illegal.

Opposition leader declares imprisonment a "political sentence"

Weißrussland Alexander Milinkewitsch im Gefängnis Minsk

Belarusian opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich

Milinkevich said Wednesday's protest, coinciding with the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, was not illegal because the crowd of about 6,000 had gathered at a place allocated to them by the city authorities.

"We had asked for permission to demonstrate in two places. We were authorized to demonstrate in one of them, and that is where we went," he told reporters before his trial.

Moscow has offered its backing to Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron fist since 1994, and Russia has criticized what it sees as Western interference.

A Russia-led election monitoring group said Lukashenko won in a free and fair vote, while the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said the vote was fraudulent.

Russian President Vladimir Putin also offered rare international support Lukashenko, whom he said had reached out to opponents following his contested re-election last month.

"It was nice to hear that you intend to work constructively with all sides," Putin told Lukashenko, a pariah in the West, during a televised meeting in a Saint Petersburg palace.

Putin praises Belarus elections; calls for end of opposition

Wladimir Putin in Kreml mit Flagge zu WTO

Putin has uses for the pariah state of Belarus

Putin appeared to call on opposition activists -- about 1,000 of whom have been briefly jailed since election day for attending anti-Lukashenko protests -- to end their fight.

"Once all emotions have subsided, I count on all who took part in the campaign to concentrate on development of the state," Putin was quoted as saying by the ITAR-TASS news agency.

Lukashenko claimed that "almost the entire population and part of the opposition voted" for him, RIA Novosti reported.

Russia, together with China, Cuba and a handful of ex-Soviet republics, has bucked the Western outcry over the Belarusian election.

Moscow props up Belarus' Soviet-style economy with vital export markets and cheap natural gas supplies, although the state-controlled Gazprom giant says the price is due to rise.

Russia and the small ex-Soviet country of 10 million people, which borders EU-members Poland, Latvia and Lithuania, have also been engaged in talks on a possible unification for years.

US fuming over Putins support for pariah Lukashenko

Condoleezza Rice in Libanon

Condoleezza Rice voiced US condemnation of Belarus

The relationship between Russia and Belarus, and the treatment of the Belarusian opposition has particularly rankled with the US. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice slammed Milinkevich's jailing as "reprehensible" in comments to reporters on the sidelines of a two-day NATO foreign ministers' meeting in Sofia.

"The United States roundly condemns this act and sincerely hopes that the Belarusian government will accept the will of the international community," Rice said.

Another key opposition leader, Alexander Kozulin, has been in jail since March 25, when he was arrested during the break-up of an opposition rally and accused of "hooliganism". He could face several years in prison, lawyers say.

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