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Belarus: Ex-Presidential Hopeful Who Fled To Russia Bets On President Putin’s ‘Decency’

Valer Tsapkala collecting signatures in Vitsebsk, Belarus on June 8, 2020 to register his candidacy for president.
Valer Tsapkala collecting signatures in Vitsebsk, Belarus on June 8, 2020 to register his candidacy for president.

Former would-be Belarusian presidential candidate Valer Tsapkala, a 55-year-old technology entrepreneur and former ambassador to the United States, has fled Belarus, fearing arrest for unclear reasons. His wife, Veranika Tsapkala, told Current Time that her husband plans to make public appearances shortly in Russia, Europe, and the U.S. to elaborate about his situation.

Tsapkala said that her husband, now with their two children in Moscow, chose Russia as a destination since the two countries have an open border, facilitating departure from Belarus. A former presidential aide, Tsapkala had received information a few days ago from “two of our law enforcement organs” that his detention was planned on fabricated charges, she said in a July 24 interview.

This made “crossing a border where there are Belarusian border patrol officers a risk in its own way,” she added.

No agreement, however, exists with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a sometime partner of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, not to hand over her husband to Belarusian custody, Tsapkala said. “We very much are hoping for the decency of Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin], that he will not hand over my spouse in the given situation,” she said.

Tsapkala’s flight follows the detentions of aspiring presidential candidates Viktar Babaryka, Syarhey Tsikhanouski, and Mikalay Statkevich and many of their supporters in the run-up to Belarus’ August 9 presidential vote. All of those detained were perceived by analysts to have the popularity, political experience, or the financial means to pose a challenge to President Lukashenka, who has been in power for 26 years. None of their candidacies were registered.

Over the past week, the largest opposition challenge to the 65-year-old leader appears to stem from an alliance between candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, wife of Syarhey Tsikhanouski, a popular vlogger now in prison for allegedly causing public disorder and interfering with an election commission, and the campaigns of Tsapkala, and jailed banker Viktar Babaryka, who has been charged with financial crimes.

As coverage of the alliance's events has built momentum, President Lukashenka, 65, has threatened to expel the BBC and RFE/RL from the country for allegedly attempting to incite unrest – an accusation RFE/RL has denied. (Current Time is led by RFE/RL in cooperation with the Voice of America.)

Amidst detentions of both protesters and journalists, Lukashenka also has implied repeatedly that he may have recourse to military force to put down street demonstrations against the government; activities that he has portrayed as potentially leading to a revolution attempt.

On July 24, he returned to this theme, citing U.S. President Donald Trump’s ongoing deployment of federal law enforcement officers – incorrectly identified by Lukashenka as “the army” -- to major U.S. cities to contend with crime, disturbances to public order, or to protect federal property, among other aims. .

“If the president of the U.S. withstands this pressure, this will be a good sign for us, too,” Lukashenka told members of the Belarusian special forces, the state-run BelTA news agency reported.

“[A]ll wars now start with street protests, demonstrations, then Maidans,” he added, in reference to the 2014 demonstrations in neighboring Ukraine that removed then President Viktor Yanukovych from power.

Lukashenka made no mention of Tsapkala, who served as the Belarusian leader’s ambassador to Washington, D.C. between 1997 and 2002. He subsequently worked as President Lukashenka’s science and technology advisor before opening Minsk’s Hi-Tech Park in 2005.

Apparently intending to make use of his international ties, Tsapkala plans to hold a press-conference in Russia next week, and then in the U.S. and “European countries,” his wife said. She did not explain how he would circumvent anti-pandemic restrictions on travel to the U.S. and much of Europe.

In the meantime, Veranika Tsapkala, a senior partner/development manager for Microsoft in the Commonwealth of Independent States, plans to stay in Belarus, where she represents her husband’s campaign in the alliance with Tsikhanouskaya and Babaryka.

Tsapkala alleges that the Belarusian government also has put pressure on the couple’s two children.

At around the same time that her husband learned of alleged plans for his detention, she claimed, representatives of the Belarusian Prosecutor-General’s Office came to the school Tsapkala’s elementary-school-age children attend and “began to collect data” about them and the Tsapkala family.

“The collected information was of a personal nature: What kind of mother am I, how do I relate to the children, and so on.” Tsapkala charged that the children had either been “forced” or “requested” to write a statement that she is a bad mother.

“I understand that the next step is for me to be deprived of my parental rights,” she said.

Later on July 24, Belarus’ Prosecutor-General’s Office categorically denied that its representatives had visited the school where the Tsapkala children study or that that the office had taken “any actions aimed at depriving Valer or Veranika Tsapkala of their parental rights." No grounds exist for such a measure, it stated.