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Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Belarus dissidents Thursday that she thinks an end to authoritarian rule in their country is within reach. She drew a rebuke from Russia's foreign minister for earlier comments about Belarus.

After meeting with the seven dissidents, Rice said next year's presidential election in Belarus offers "an excellent opportunity" to focus on the need for credible elections in the country, a pro-Russian former Soviet republic led since 1994 by President Alexander Lukashenko.

Wednesday, Rice had said it was "time for a change" in Belarus -- a comment that prompted a reply Thursday from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Apparently interpreting her comment as a call for outside intervention, Lavrov said Russia "would not advocate what some people call regime change anywhere. You cannot impose democracy from the outside."

Rice came here from Russia to attend informal meetings of NATO foreign ministers.

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