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Belarus: Defection of Opposition Leaders Reveals Political Cracks

Prague, August 5 (RFE/RL) -- In at least one country of the former Soviet Union, the language of the Cold War--words such as "defector," for instance--is still spoken. That country is Belarus.

The word is being applied to the actions last week of two of the country's leading opposition politicians, Zyanon Paznyak, leader of the Belarusian National Front (BNP), and Syarhei Naumchyk, spokesman for that organization. Both men applied last week for political asylum in the United States.

They were not the first in recent times to flee the country because of politics. Others, journalists and ordinary people, had left before them. But as opposition politicians, they have done more than most to incur the wrath of the country's hard-line president, Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

Paznyak and Naumchyk accuse Lukashenka of "authoritarian" and "dictatorial" rule. But it is not just his style and methods such as muzzling the media, banning public demonstrations and imprisoning political opponents that the men denounce. They blame Lukashenka for the country's present economic difficulties and reject his vision of the country's future.

Lukashenka's plans for integrating Belarus with neighboring Russia sparked mass demonstrations in Minsk in March, demonstrations which the BNP helped organize.

Since then, the organization's members say they have been harassed, imprisoned, or forced to flee the country. Paznyak and Naumchyk claim they have been branded enemies of the state. They say they left in fear for their lives.

After visiting Eastern and Central Europe to try to draw attention to the situation in Belarus, Paznyak and Naumchyk arrived in the United States and applied for political asylum. Their request is pending.

Some critics feared that, with the opposition leaders out of the country, the struggle against Lukashenka's grip on power would wither. But evidence is growing that Lukashenka's efforts to establish one-man rule are beginning to backfire.

Recently, a broad spectrum of Belarus's political parties--including nationalists, liberals and communists--denounced Lukashenka's call for constitutional amendments to extend his power. It was an unprecedented move.

Deputy parliament chairman Gennady Karpenko called it the first big step towards ridding the country of "the weeds that are choking it."

Thousands of people recently attended a rally in Minsk where speakers denounced Lukashenka as a dictator and demanded his impeachment.

There are also signs of growing discontent within the government. The resignation this week of Economics Minister Georgy Badzey and Foreign Trade Minister and Deputy Cabinet Chairman Leonid Sinitsyn further undermined Lukashenka's position. Before his resignation, Badzey accused Lukashenka of either ignoring or rejecting all economic reform programs put forward by his ministry.

So far, the turmoil in Belarus has been seen as an internal affair. This could change.

Paznyak and Naumchyk have called for U.S. congressional hearings on the human rights abuses in Belarus. Martin Hoke, a congressman, said he will ask Congress to eliminate Belarus' entire $13 million allocation from the Agency for International Development's spending bill for 1997.