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A Year After Fleeing Belarus, Veranika Tsapkala Still Battling Lukashenka's 'Inhumane Regime'

Belarusian opposition figure Veranika Tsapkala (file photo)
Belarusian opposition figure Veranika Tsapkala (file photo)

Veranika Tsapkala has been an integral part of the largely female-led push to unseat Alyaksandr Lukashenka, the authoritarian leader of Belarus since 1994.

After her husband's bid to run in the country's presidential election last August was rejected on claims that he had falsified signatures needed to get on the ballot, Tsapkala teamed up with Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a reluctant candidate who only joined the race after her husband's bid was also nixed. Lukashenka had made sure to disqualify potential challengers, but apparently didn't see Tsikhanouskaya as one -- dismissing women as "poor things."

Joined by Marrya Kalesnikava, the trio attracted crowds that swelled in size, tapping into Belarusians' building frustrations with Lukashenka's authoritarian rule. For many Belarusians, the tipping point perhaps came with Lukashenka's perceived mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic and his refusal to institute any lockdown measures, triggering some of Europe's highest coronavirus infection rates.

On the campaign trail, Tsikhanouskaya clenching her fist, Kalesnikava making a heart sign, and Tsapkala signaling a V for victory quickly became iconic symbols of the election.

"The rallies that we held in each city were unique in their own way," recounted Tsapkala, 38, in a recent interview with RFE/RL's Belarus Service. "In one city, we met many older people, grandmothers, who told us about their lives: how they raised their children, who had then been forced to leave the country. In other cities, we met people with disabilities, and, in others, we met with poets and musicians. Each rally was incredible in its own way."

"There was all that positive energy coming from the people," she added. "It was an experience that I will never forget for the rest of my life. For me, the 2020 campaign was one of the highlights of my life and I will never forget it."

"I miss the times when we were a trio, when we traveled together, supported each other, going on stage," Tsapkala said. "Masha (Kalesnikava) and I had the experience of performing on stage, albeit not on a daily basis, and then Sveta (Tsikhanouskaya) had no experience on stage at all. She was very afraid, and we supported each other in every way. We were like three sisters."

Using gestures that have since become iconic opposition symbols, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya clenches her fist, Maryya Kalesnikava makes a heart sign, and Veranika Tsapkala signals V for victory while campaigning ahead of Belarus's disputed presidential election in 2020.
Using gestures that have since become iconic opposition symbols, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya clenches her fist, Maryya Kalesnikava makes a heart sign, and Veranika Tsapkala signals V for victory while campaigning ahead of Belarus's disputed presidential election in 2020.

Hopes Dashed

Hopes for change were quickly dashed on election night when Lukashenka was declared the landslide winner, triggering large protests in Minsk and elsewhere that were met by a brutal crackdown.

Amid the turmoil, Tsapkala ultimately left, fleeing Belarus first for Poland in what would be a many-nation, yearlong odyssey.

Tsikhanouskaya was forced to flee Belarus for neighboring Lithuania a day after the disputed vote and has largely become the global face of the democratic Belarusian opposition to Lukashenka, meeting with world leaders including U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House in July.

Kalesnikava, who had first headed the presidential campaign of Viktar Babaryka before his own presidential bid was ended by embezzlement charges that he denies, did not leave, although Lukashenka's security apparatus tried to push her out.

Kalesnikava was arrested on September 7 in Minsk by masked men and taken to the Ukrainian border the next day along with two associates. Ordered to cross the border, Kalesnikava refused, tearing up her passport instead. She was then taken back to Minsk and jailed.

She is now on trial on charges of attempting to seize power by unconstitutional means, publicly calling for actions against national security, and creating and leading an extremist group. If convicted, Kalesnikava faces up to 12 years in prison.

"For me personally, it was very difficult leaving Belarus," Tsapkala said of her own travails. "Because that is my homeland, my home, my mother is buried there, and I haven't been to her grave for more than a year. It was not easy for me."

"When we left Belarus, Valer first went to Russia with the kids, because at the time there was no border between Belarus and Russia, no passport control," she said, referring to her husband, Valer Tsapkala. "After that, we went to Ukraine, and from there Poland, then Latvia, and now we are in Greece. Why did we go to so many countries? At first, we went to all the countries bordering Belarus to meet with the leadership of these countries and speak with them about the situation in our country."

Tsapkala said the decision to relocate to Greece had much to do with economics.

"I needed to get a job because for more than a year we'd been living off our personal savings, as well as the money that Valer earns as a global consultant on information technology," Tsapkala explained.

Her husband, 56, had co-founded a high-tech incubator in Minsk and has political and diplomatic experience as well, having headed Lukashenka's first presidential campaign in 1994 and served as ambassador to the United States from 1997 to 2002.

Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka (file photo)
Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka (file photo)

Tsapkala rejects any suggestion her husband's business success was due to his early ties with Lukashenka.

"Until 2005, he was in fact a civil servant; he was an ambassador," she said. "Valer was one of a few who was able to bring the experience he acquired in the United States and applied it at home, creating the Hi-Tech Park, the most successful project in the 27 years of the Lukashenka regime. But since 2005, he has not been a government official."

Tsapkala scoffed at claims by Lukashenka that his foes are financed by the West.

"During this entire time, we have not received any outside help," she said. "So, I always laugh when Lukashenka accuses opposition leaders and politicians of living off grants or other money from the West, and so on. Just speaking for ourselves, we have not received a dime of outside help. That is why we decided that I also needed to return to work, because we needed something to live on, to feed the kids," Tsapkala said.

Unpacked Suitcases

In the early days abroad, Tsapkala said she was convinced they would be returning home sooner rather than later.

"For the first five months abroad, I didn't even unpack my suitcases," she explained. "I'm not kidding. During that time, we were in and out of a lot of apartments because we were moving from country to country. But every day I expected and hoped that today or tomorrow we will go back home. That's why I didn't unpack my suitcases. And literally only at the beginning of this year, I unpacked several of our suitcases for the first time."

Now in Greece, Tsapkala is also devoting time to the Belarusian Women's Fund, which she created and said "was a logical step after we were in a trio with Svyatlana and Maryya, and after Maryya was illegally jailed."

Veranika Tsapkala with her husband, Valer, in May 2020.
Veranika Tsapkala with her husband, Valer, in May 2020.

According to Tsapkala, the Belarusian Women's Fund has collected testimony from women in Belarus who were imprisoned or experienced torture and humiliation. Based on this testimony, Tsapkala said, a case has been sent to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Much of the Belarusian opposition leadership is either under arrest, in jail, or in exile. And Lukashenka, while an international pariah, still remains in power. But Tsapkala is convinced, Lukashenka's rule will ultimately come to an end.

"My dream, like the dream of most Belarusians, is to finally end this inhumane regime," she said. "I have no doubt that this regime will fall because it cannot be otherwise. We are free, and we continue our struggle. Even though Valer and I have had to return to normal jobs, we have not abandoned our social activism for one minute."

Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Tony Wesolowsky based on an interview by Anna Sous
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    Anna Sous

    Anna Sous is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Belarus Service.​ She is a graduate of the Faculty of Journalism at the Belarusian State University. She worked for the independent newspaper Narodnaya Volya from 1997–2000 and has been with RFE/RL since then. She is a recipient of the Ales Adamovich Prize from the Belarusian PEN Center and was recognized as Journalist of the Year by the Belarusian human rights community in 2019. She is also the creator of Russia And Me -- a series of interviews with 12 former presidents of post-Soviet countries.