Belarus opposition figure fears he won’t be able to go home

MOSCOW (AP) — A Belarusian opposition figure who fled to Russia after being denied a ballot spot in next month’s presidential election says he may not be able to return home if authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko wins another term.

Valery Tsepkalo, a former ambassador to the United States and the founder of a thriving high-tech development park, was seen as a top challenger to Lukashenko in the Aug. 9 vote.

But he was denied a place on the ballot on a technicality two weeks ago. Two other top opposition figures have been jailed ahead of the election — aspiring candidate Viktor Babariko, the former head of a major bank, and prominent opposition blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, whose wife Svetlana is the only opposition candidate allowed on the ballot.

Lukashenko has been in office for 25 years, during which he has suppressed dissent and independent news media. Prominent political opponents have been frequently jailed, sometimes imprisoned for years.

Tsepkalo, who fled to Russia last week with his children, told The Associated Press on Tuesday he had received tips that his arrest was imminent and that there were plans to strip him of his parental rights and take his children away.

Previous presidential elections in Belarus have been widely criticized as neither free nor fair, and Lukashenko is likely to retain power. If that happens, Tsepkalo says he won’t be able to return.

“It would be impossible for me to get back, because I would be taken as a hostage,” he added. “If he (takes kids as hostages, then he can definitely take every one of his political opponents as hostages.”

Pre-election demonstrations of support for opposition candidates have been unusually large and active this year, driven by weariness with Lukashenko’s hardline rule and his refusal to take strong measures to block the spread of COVID-19. Tsepkalo said the turnouts may have been his undoing.

“When the number of (supporters) started to exceed 300 and sometimes reached 500, Lukashenko made a decision to take me away as the last remaining candidate among these three big major candidates,” he said.

Lukashenko “is scared, he’s afraid,” Tsepkalo said. “He demonstrated cowardly behavior because he can’t stay openly against any opposition leader, against any opposition candidates.”

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