Belarus’ former ambassador to the United States, Valer Tsapkala, an aspiring presidential candidate denied registration in the country’s August 9 elections, has embarked on a sort of regional outreach campaign for opposition to Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
The 55-year-old technology entrepreneur spoke with Current Time from Kyiv on August 3. Reportedly fearing arrest, Tsapkala fled Belarus with his children sometime in late July and first headed to Russia, Belarus' closest ally.
Contrary to some initial speculation, Tsapkala, a graduate of the elite, government-run Moscow State Institute of International Relations, emphasized that he did not go to Moscow with the goal of discussing Belarus’ tense presidential election campaign with Russia’s leadership.
Instead, he said, he spoke with “several” parliamentarians, not members of the ruling United Russia party, “to understand what mood” exists in Russia’s “political circles related to the events in Belarus.”
These discussions occurred before Belarus’ July 29 detention of 33 alleged Russian mercenaries, who were later charged with plotting to use terrorism to disrupt Belarus’ presidential elections.
Tsapkala, earlier seen as a potential serious challenger to President Lukashenka, termed what he described as Russia’s “position of neutrality” on Belarus’ presidential elections as “the only possible, the only correct thing to do in this situation.”
Lukashenka is willing to risk ruining Belarus’ relatively close ties with Russia over the detentions because “he is trying to create the feeling of a besieged fortress” to win the election, asserted Tsapkala, who formerly also served as a science and technology adviser to the Belarusian leader.
“And a besieged fortress when all the people should mobilize around him, pull together” -- somewhat akin to the situation in North Korea, he added. “He imagines himself as the sole leader of the nation, the leader who is capable of saving this nation” from all outside enemies.
Russia’s various treaties with Minsk mean they cannot openly oppose President Lukashenka’s re-election bid, he said, but Moscow is also wary of openly backing him. If the 65-year-old leader fails at the polls or “openly falsifies the elections, then Russia will look bad in the eyes of the Belarusian people,” Tsapkala commented.
“It seems to me that Russia’s reaction is still quite mild; that is, at least officially,” he said.
Moscow has denied the allegations against the 33 Russians and insisted that they were simply traveling through Belarus en route to Istanbul. It has not identified them as mercenaries.
But Minsk's allegations about “fighters” or other individuals attempting to use violence to upset a Belarusian election occur with “[e]very election, every political crisis that takes place in Belarus …”
In the 2006 and 2010 presidential elections, amidst push-back from the opposition, he noted, the state security services, or KGB, also publicized alleged evidence of foreign plots to violently overthrow Lukashenka.
Ukraine, Poland, the Baltics, Sweden, the European Union, and the U.S. have all been blamed in the past, he added. Now, for the first time, Russia has joined the list.
Like other government critics, Tsapkala conjectured that the Belarusian leader intended these detentions to distract from Belarus’ current problems, such as “low living standards, mass migration, low salaries,” a lack of political freedoms, and the corruption of business.
He believes the president is now backing away from the topic since he senses that Belarusian voters are not reacting to the detentions as desired.
On August 1, Lukashenka told KGB Chairman Valery Vakulchik and Investigative Committee Chairman Ivan Noskevich not to get tough with the Russian detainees, “although they are guilty. “
“These are soldiers. They were given an order and they went” to do the job, he stated in a conversation broadcast on state-run Belarus 1. “We need to sort things out with everyone who ordered them, who sent them here.”
That could mean jailed YouTube blogger Syarhey Tsikhanouski, the husband of candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, now the most prominent opponent to Lukashenka’s reelection bid. An outspoken Lukashenka critic, Tsikhanouski, also a denied presidential candidate, was charged last week with coordinating with the detained Russians to disrupt Belarus’ elections. Tsikhanouskaya has rejected the charges as fabricated.
Tsapkala believes that the government will also try to bring charges against Tsikhanouskaya and her two allies – his wife, Veranika Tsapkala, who campaigns for Tsikhanouskaya as a representative of Tsapkala’s former campaign, and Maryya Kalesnikava, who represents the former campaign of jailed banker Viktar Babaryka, another would-be presidential candidate.
However, he noted, the detention of women, including female political opponents, is “still a little unacceptable for the Belarusian public, including for those officers who work in law enforcement and those officers who serve in the army.”
Since Tsapkala’s departure for Russia, however, his wife, he noted, has been brought in for questioning “about me.” Veranika Tsapkala’s sister, Natasha, was also summoned. The two women were both later released and Veranika Tsapkala’s questioning postponed until July 31. No public updates have been released.
Tsapkala, the founder of Minsk’s High-Tech Park, indicated that investigators could be interested in his business dealings. He did not elaborate about the reported planned charges that sparked his departure from Belarus.
He expressed unease at leaving his wife behind, but stated that the couple believed his departure with their children was the only way one of them could actively campaign against the president.
Like other Belarusian critics of Lukashenka, he is certain that individuals in Belarus’ law enforcement and army are “weighing their options” for a forceful breakup of any protest over the election results. He cited Lukashenka’s regular visits of late to Interior Ministry and armed services troops and his attendance at a riot-police training for breaking up demonstrations.
Yet despite Lukashenka’s broad hints that he could summon the army into action against protesters, Tsapkala doubted that the army would comply.
“I don’t believe that the Belarusian army can use weapons against its own people. I don’t believe that it wants to enter into military operations against its own brothers, sisters, mamas, papas, parents, grandfathers and grandmothers: This will not cover it with glory. . . It will simply cover itself with shame.”
Similarly, while Belarus’ Interior Ministry troops could easily disperse “100-200 people” forming solidarity chains or buying anti-Lukashenka t-shirts, they would respond more cautiously to a massive turnout in Belarus’ major towns, he said.
In that case, he predicted, the law enforcement agencies “will treat [demonstrators] with a lot of respect … They won’t get into a conflict.”
Tsapkala said he has sent an open letter to 32 countries urging them to press Belarus to allow international observers and journalists to document the election and its aftermath. He himself intends to continue his foreign meet-and-greet campaign next in Poland and the Baltic states.
He did not elaborate in detail about how or when he managed to reach Kyiv from Moscow. The two countries no longer have direct flights between their capitals.
In Kyiv, Tsapkala does not plan to meet with Ukrainian officials. Rather, he said, his aim is “to show our neighbors, above all, what’s really going on in Belarus.”
“For many, this is just a shock: They just can’t [grasp] that they can flat-out ignore the voices of voters in a European country in the 21st century. “
Tsapkala stated that he was taken by car to the Russian-Ukrainian border – a trip that could take up to 9 hours from Moscow, depending on the destination – and “crossed the border by foot.” He took an instant COVID-19 test once inside Ukraine.
He did not elaborate about how he managed to avoid Ukraine’s mandatory 14-day quarantine for those arriving from abroad.
He has requested the Polish government to exempt him also from a quarantine, and said that he will take another COVID-19 test immediately prior to departure for Poland.