A critic of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka who last month fled the country along with his children after his and others’ candidacies were rejected for next week’s presidential election has reportedly left Russia for neighboring Ukraine.
A spokesman for Valer Tsapkala said on August 2 that the 55-year-old politician and founder of a prominent high-tech park in Minsk — who was seen by some as a serious challenger to the 26-year incumbent Lukashenka — was on his way from Moscow to Kyiv.
The spokesman, Alyaksey Urban, did not provide details or say why Tsapkala, who fled amid rumors of his imminent arrest, preferred the Ukrainian capital to Russia.
The announcement comes seven days before Belarus’s August 9 vote, which has already been marred by dubious disqualifications and an unprecedented scale of detentions and other persecution against a backdrop of a pandemic and pro-democracy protest.
Add to that a fresh accusation by Lukashenka that Russian mercenaries were detained while purportedly trying to destabilize Belarus ahead of the election, and it shapes up as one of the most alarmingly volatile elections of Lukashenka’s authoritarian tenure.
More than 1,100 people have been arrested since campaigning began, including politicians, organizers, and journalists.
Human rights groups and other critics have accused Belarusian authorities of fostering an atmosphere of “fear and intimidation” ahead of the vote, including by banning independent observers from polling stations and threatening to deploy troops to put down any protests.
Officials have barred aspiring candidates like Tsapkala and popular vlogger Syarhey Tsikhanouski, whose wife, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, entered the race after her husband was jailed following his announcement that he would also seek the presidency.
Many Belarusians have turned out to rally in support of Tsikhanouskaya amid mounting public opposition to Lukashenka’s sixth term in office, with the biggest of the demonstrations attracting tens of thousands of people to Minsk’s Park of Peoples Friendship on July 30.
The Central Election Commission dismissed Tsapkala’s application on July 14 after apparently rejecting around half of the 160,000 signatures that accompanied his application to run.
Tsapkala appeared on Russian TV 10 days later to say he’d fled out of concern for his safety after prosecutors visited his children’s school and “reliable sources” told him he was going to be arrested.
Tsapkala’s wife, Veranika, is reportedly still in Belarus.
Veranika Tsapkala, along with Maryya Kalesnikava, a coordinator of the campaign of another excluded presidential aspirant, former Belgazprombank head Viktar Babaryka, joined forces to support Tsikhanouskaya, who unlike Tsapkala and Babaryka was registered as a presidential candidate.
Tsikhanouskaya reportedly sent her two children to an EU member state out of concern for their safety after receiving threats ahead of election.
Late last month, Tsapkala’s sister-in-law reported being detained briefly for questioning in connection with accusations against Tsapkala by an obcure Turkish businessman that emerged after Tsapkala’s attempt to get on the ballot.
None of Lukashenka’s five electoral victories has ever been regarded as free or democratic by Western standards, and the 65-year-old former Soviet cooperative-farm director routinely jails political opponents, shuts dissent out of state-dominated media, and uses the state apparatus to keep close tabs on and punish perceived rivals or dissenters.
Belarusian authorities have tried to link Tsikhanouski and other jailed opposition politicians with a probe launched against 33 contractors from the private Russian military company Vagner who were detained and accused of trying to somehow affect the election.
The Ukrainian Prosecutor-General’s Office said on July 31 that Kyiv would ask Belarus to hand over 28 of the Vagner detainees on charges of fighting alongside Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. It said nine Ukrainian citizens are among the 28, although Moscow disputed that status.
Lukashenka said after a meeting with senior intelligence and investigative officials late on August 1 that while the Russians “are certainly guilty…these are soldiers. They were ordered [and] they went. We need to deal with those who ordered, who sent them here.”
Moscow, which has been frustrated at an inability to implement a joint union agreement signed decades ago with Minsk, has dismissed any suggestion of interference in the election.