By MONIKA SCISLOWSKA
WARSAW, Poland -- Representatives from the United States and several European countries are meeting in Warsaw on Wednesday in an effort to raise money for the democratic opposition in autocratic Belarus, officials said.
The conference is organized by Poland, which has taken a leading role in trying to promote democracy in the country to its east often referred to as "Europe's last dictatorship."
It comes after mass protests were brutally dispersed and opposition candidates arrested in December following a presidential election generally regarded as fraudulent. President Alexander Lukashenko was declared the winner, claiming almost 80 percent of the vote.
The EU said this week that it is imposing an asset freeze and a visa ban on 156 top officials of Belarus, while United States also expanded its list of Belarus officials subject to travel restrictions.
Poland has taken a leading role in European efforts to support the pro-democracy movement in Belarus. There is great sympathy for the struggle in part because Poland was once under authoritarian communist rule and many of its current leaders belonged to Lech Walesa's Solidarity movement, which helped toppled communism.
Lukashenko has accused Poland of plotting to overthrow him in order to re-carve the border between the two countries - a charge dismissed by Warsaw as absurd.
The international donors' conference will be held as a "gesture of solidarity" with Belarusians living under Lukashenko's regime, said Polish deputy foreign minister, Krzysztof Stanowski. The aim will be to raise financial and other forms of assistance for pro-democracy groups, free media outlets and Belarusian students who have been expelled for their opposition activities.
Foreign ministers or their deputies are attending from several other European countries while several pro-democracy and aid groups will also be there.
The U.S. is sending a delegation that will be led by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Daniel A. Russell.
The U.S. Ambassador to Poland, Lee Feinstein, said his country was joining the effort "to show our solidarity with the people of Belarus in response to the brutal crackdown" by Lukashenko and the Belarusian government.
"The United States commends the government of Poland for its leadership in convening this important international conference," Feinstein said.
Poland considers it a matter of strategic importance to see democracies along its eastern border. It is wedged between Western European democracies on one side, and Belarus and Ukraine to its east.