An exiled challenger to Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka says the strongman will not use force if large crowds take to the streets to challenge the results of the upcoming election.
Lukashenka’s 26 years of authoritarian rule look increasingly vulnerable ahead of the August 9 presidential election, although most analysts say he will likely win through a combination of fraud and repression against an energized opposition.
But Valer Tsapkala, a prominent businessman and former ambassador who was seen as a serious challenger to Lukashenka, says he believes the president will flee the country if faced with hundreds of thousands of protesters during and after the election.
WATCH: Tsapkala speaks to Current Time
In an interview with Current Time, Tsapkala said he believes Lukashenka “will simply board a plane and will fly away somewhere” if faced with mass street mobilization.
Current Time is a Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.
While the president may be able to use the police and security services to suppress several thousand protesters, if 100,000 people were mobilized he will not issue an order for the army to intervene, Tsapkala said.
“I don't believe that the Belarusian Army will be capable of using arms against its own people,” Tsapkala said from the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv.
Tens of thousands of opposition supporters have attended daily rallies in recent weeks in support of presidential candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a 37-year-old political novice backed by disqualified presidential candidates.
In recent weeks, Lukashenka has been meeting with Interior Ministry officials and inspecting the military, sending an intimidating signal that he may order a bloody crackdown to quell any unrest against his increasingly unpopular rule.
Add to that a fresh allegation by Lukashenka that a group of purported Russian mercenaries who were detained last month in Belarus were trying to destabilize Belarus ahead of the election, and it shapes up as one of the most volatile elections of Lukashenka's authoritarian tenure.
The lead-up to the vote has been marred by dubious disqualifications and an unprecedented scale of detentions and other persecution against a backdrop of a pandemic and pro-democracy protests.
More than 1,100 people have been arrested since campaigning began, including politicians, organizers, and journalists.
Authorities have barred aspiring candidates like Tsapkala and popular vlogger Syarhey Tsikhanouski, the husband of Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya.
Tsapkala's wife, Veranika, along with Maryya Kalesnikava, a coordinator of the campaign of another excluded presidential aspirant, former Belgazprombank head Viktar Babaryka, have joined forces to support Tsikhanouskaya, who unlike Tsapkala and Babaryka was registered as a presidential candidate.
Tsapkala fled Belarus out of concern that he would be arrested like Babaryka and Tsikhanouski.