By DESMOND BUTLER
A leading opposition figure from Belarus is urging the United States to focus more on his country.
Alexander Milinkevich was in Washington meeting with U.S. officials and lawmakers on a trip backed by the Polish government. Poland has supported the opposition and pushed its neighbor to become more democratic.
Milinkevich told The Associated Press Wednesday that Belarus's President Alexander Lukashenko continues to make life hard for the opposition and has stepped up political arrests. Milinkevich, who ran against Lukashenko in 2006, said that he believes the president is weaker ahead of an election mandated before February.
Milinkevich also said he believes that Lukashenko will continue to protect Kyrgyzstan's ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who fled Kyrgyzstan last month after being deposed. Lukashenko may be reflecting on his own fate should he ever need to flee, Milinkevich said.
"He would like to show that in a difficult moment, even a dictator should get some support," he said, speaking in Polish through an interpreter in an interview at the Polish embassy.
Milinkevich said that he had come to the U.S. "to underscore that the U.S. presence in our region is very important."
"It seems that recently we have not been in among U.S. priorities," he said.
Milinkevich was also critical of some western European countries, though he did not name them, for prioritizing trade over democracy promotion in Belarus.
He said that he does not think the West should isolate Minsk, because he fears that doing so could drive his country into greater dependence on Russia.