He feared he’d be thrown in prison and his children would be abducted.
Now, from his exile, he is asking the United States to recognize Svetlana Tikhanovskaya as the legitimately elected president of a country that has been ruled for 26 years by the same strongman.
“We are proud of the Belarusian people who have awakened from a lethargic sleep,” the businessman and former diplomat told Fox News.
It is hard to say which story is more dramatic: the run-up to the elections or the aftermath.
Two other main opposition figures were thrown in jail before the poll. One was Tikhanovskaya’s husband. The other was a former banker. The result was that the wives and a campaign manager took calls for change and ran with them as a united front, forming an unprecedented and powerful troika of female voices that brought people out in droves to their rallies.
The aftermath of an election widely called fraudulent has been a near two-week run of protests — from peaceful masses taking to the streets and filling squares to Lukashenko’s base of workers walking off jobs in factories to state TV anchors abandoning their desks. The crackdown on demonstrators has been brutal with claims of rape and other forms of abuse and photos of hideously bruised bodies flooding social media.
“People started to demonstrate the traditions of the partisan movement,” Tsepkalo said, referring to the resistance in World War II when one in four citizens of Belarus died. Then, as now, a network of people offering aid and shelter has formed. This time, the organization has taken place via Telegram.
“People started to associate Lukashenko and his regime with the Nazi occupation that destroyed many Belarusians,” Tsepkalo remarked.
Though Lukashenko has remained in power, claiming to have won 80 percent of the vote, Tsepkalo said he’s finished. The question on the minds of many: If that’s true, how would he go?
Tsepkalo claimed that back when he was trying to get on the ballot, he told Lukashenko that if he won, he would give the longstanding leader safe haven in Belarus.
“I offered him personal bodyguards. I offered him to have a normal life, to grow potatoes and watermelons, to teach at a university, to do what any normal person would do,” the challenger said. “But now, I think he has crossed the line. I don’t think the next government would tolerate this situation now that he has used brutal force.”
The world has been watching the Kremlin throughout all this amid suggestions Russian President Vladimir Putin could send some of his so-called “little green men” to Minsk. But, Tsepkalo said Putin needn’t worry about his relationship with Belarus; they will always be friends. As he put it, Belarus wanted to be neutral, like Switzerland, so Putin had better not send in the troops.
“We would not like to consider Belarus as a base for any military forces against anybody. We would not like the troops of NATO to be located on the territory of Belarus and pose even a potential threat to Russia. But, we would not like Russian troops to be located on the territory of Belarus as an even theoretical threat to Ukraine. We would strive to have a policy of neutrality as our goal in foreign policy, to form a belt of friendship on the borders of the Republic of Belarus,” Tsepkalo said.
He claimed Belarus was not Ukraine. He said the revolution was not about joining Europe and shaking off Moscow’s yoke, but rather, about getting rid of a leader who protestors said overstayed his welcome. Still, Tsepkalo said Belarus would like good relations with Europe and with the United States. Belarus’ economy has been the closest thing Europe’s had to a state-run system and many sectors of life still seemed somewhat Soviet, not the least the fact that the security service is still called KGB.
“We consider the U.S. as the main source of technology, the main source of investment, and we need this investment. We need the transfer of technology. We need investment from America and other countries in the West,” Tsepkalo remarked.
The U.S. was getting ready to send a new ambassador to Belarus after a 12-year absence. But, Tsepkalo asks they wait, at least a bit.
The exiles politican said, “You should not send an ambassador now to Belarus since the ambassador would present credentials to Lukashenko and it would mean the U.S. government would recognize Lukashenko as president.”