World

An Interview with Belarus’s Top At-Large Opponent to the Lukashenko Regime

Valery Tsepkalo in 2016 (Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters)
Valery Tsepkalo is a mainstream opposition candidate for president of Belarus.

For those readers unacquainted with the recent goings-on in Eastern Europe, Valery Tsepkalo is an opposition candidate for president of Belarus — the only one of the original ‘Big Three’ opposition candidates who has not been imprisoned by the 26-year-ruling Lukashenko administration. Rather than detaining Tsepkalo, Lukashenko has decided to invalidate the majority of his signatures on false grounds to bar him from running for president — though Tsepkalo will appeal against these tactics through the Belarusian legal system.

Before running for president, Tsepkalo served as the Belarusian ambassador to the United States and to Mexico, founded the so-called Belarusian Silicon Valley (the home of Viber and World of Tanks, among other successful online brands — indeed, one of the few growing sectors of the Belarusian economy). He’s also created a massive biographical database similar to Facebook, advised Belarus and the U.N. on science and technology, and published books and hundreds of articles. A true renaissance man.

Below is National Review’s conversation with Mr. Tsepkalo, which has been edited.

Dmitri Solzhenitsyn: Mr. Tsepkalo, thank you so much for speaking with me. It must be a crazy time for you right now, as your signatures have been invalidated. I hear from your campaign staff that you are being threatened. What’s the situation on the ground right now?

Valery Tsepkalo: There were three major candidates opposing to the Lukashenko regime. Two of them have been arrested — [Sergei] Tikhonovsky first, before the formal procedure of submitting signatures. Then [Viktor] Babariko and I announced we’d run for president, and we were able to register our groups (according to the Constitution, you need a certain number of signatures before registering as a candidate). Babariko was the most popular choice, and I in second. (Of course, popular support ebbs and flows, as Biden’s ascendancy from February to March shows.) Babariko has been taken prisoner; I do not exclude the option that I might be taken as well. There have been allegations against me, after all. But Lukashenko seems to have figured that it will be easier to sideline me — to simply not register my votes. Our campaign collected 220,000 signatures, but made sure to only submit the 160,000 which were completely clean. We only needed 100,000 to run, after all. But the government claims that only 75,000 signatures are valid — they stole our signatures illegally. Babariko and I got 100,000 signatures just in Minsk, but they have said that these are invalid . . . Hanna Kanapackaja and Sergey Cherechen, on the other hand, seem to have submitted fewer than 100,000 signatures counted — [the top candidates’] signatures seem to have been given over to them because the government views them as less threatening. Altogether, we opposition candidates seem to have had close to 93 percent [of] public support, but you can see how our efforts have been dismissed by the incumbent regime. I may not even end up being registered, despite the great efforts of our campaign and our supporters.

DS: You worked for the Lukashenko administration for decades, but you had a falling out in 2017. Why did this happen, and what motivated you to return to the political scene and run for president this year?

VT: It is true that I worked for the government. But I started the “Belarus Silicon Valley” not to work for the government, but to boost private growth and innovation. I had been building up our Silicon Valley for twelve years, but I was dismissed from the position in 2017 because, after eight IT workers were arrested on flimsy charges, I stood up for them to the prosecutor and said that this was not the right way to get tax revenue. President Lukashenko took the side of the prosecutor. As for running for president, I simply took the momentum from my Silicon Valley, which was entirely self-sufficient, creating jobs and revenue without any government subsidy, knowing that my endeavors and experiences qualified me to lead Belarus. I demonstrated to the whole world that Belarus could develop quite successfully, despite the poor growth of our economy under Lukashenko —indeed, its stagnation — relative to the economies of comparable nations over the last decade. Our efforts in tech have allowed us to create jobs, capital, build infrastructure for our employees, and create several multibillion-dollar companies. I know that this sort of innovation is desperately needed in other sectors of Belarus’s economy — the people are getting poorer and poorer, and many have fled the country. Particularly, we need to reform agriculture (still based on Soviet collective farming at the moment), as well as health care, education, and even our own Constitution, which currently allows for too much authoritarianism.

DS: How do you hope to proceed now that you have been barred from running?

VT: We are making an appeal; we will go to the highest court if necessary to validate our signatures again. We understand that this political decision has been made to maintain power. We will proceed now in legal terms. If, in the end, only one or a few of us is permitted to run (such as Babariko or the wife of Tikhonovsky), I will stand by that person or those people. If none of us are registered, I will urge people not to vote in protest. But we still need to wait: Before the registration process has been completed, it will be hard to choose which tactic to employ.

DS: Say that none of the opposition efforts win, and Lukashenko finds his way back to the presidency. This seems highly likely. What moral victories, if any, will you see from this year’s campaigns, and what do you see in Belarus’s future?

VT: First of all, we will show the public who Lukashenko is: afraid of competition, not willing to have a fair fight. We will show that he knows that he has almost completely lost public support. This will also become apparent to Belarus’ foreign partners as they deal with Lukashenko. Investors already do not trust Lukashenko — we have many examples of people here and abroad investing in state-run companies, and Lukashenko simply taking their money. As for the future of Belarus, I believe that we will become more democratic, but there will likely be a short-term mass exodus from Belarus of the young people owing to economic stagnation. Unemployment is high, salaries are low. And if the youth emigrate on too large a scale, it will be hard for our industries to reform and thrive. At the moment, many are unfortunately state-run and bankrupt and could only run if Russia financed us. Russia, of course, has its own social obligations to deal with. In short, the situation may deteriorate fast under Lukashenko — but we don’t even know what will happen within the next year. The stagnation of 2010, of course, was not well anticipated. We had been on an even economic plane with Lithuania, for instance, but now they are doing much better. Lukashenko, for his part, remains in power solely through law-enforcement agencies, but he has to feed them and pay them. They are a massive force — we have the highest ratio of law enforcement to the population of any Western nation. This is unsustainable, economically. Whoever will come after Lukashenko needs to start reforms, but Lukashenko is not ready for reforms. I don’t know what Lukashenko will be doing with all his state-run companies, and who will want to invest. This is frustrating because we could get Western investment easily and prosper if we managed relations better. We are not far from Germany, Austria, and Sweden. But decades of mismanagement have made me pessimistic about our future, barring large-scale changes.

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