It’s an election year in Belarus, “Europe’s Last Dictatorship,” which means: propaganda, police violence, and political repression. On Thursday Victor Babaryko, the biggest challenger to incumbent Alexander Lukashenko, was jailed on tax charges.
This week Lukashenko claimed he had foiled a foreign plot to topple his 26-year rule of Belarus, a forested nation of 9.5 million people wedged between Europe and Russia. “The masks were torn not only from certain puppets we had here but also from puppeteers who sit outside Belarus,” he said.
With other opposition leaders already behind bars, that leaves few able to topple Lukashenko at this August’s poll, which observers note should be Lukashenko’s shakiest to date. Among them is the architect of Belarus’ thriving tech sector, Valery Tsepkalo. Could a tech entrepreneur become President?
Tsepkalo, a former diplomat and founder of Hi-Tech Park, the tech ganglion in capital city Minsk, faces a regime in disarray. Economic progress is glacial. Belarus’ handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has been haphazard. Lukashenko refused to cancel a military parade, and kept Belarussian soccer teams playing their season. Lukashenko has dismissed concerns as “hysteria,” and has even prescribed vodka, saunas and tractor-driving as possible cures.
Lukashenko has also distanced himself from the Kremlin, which has traditionally helped him hold onto power. Last December Russia switched off vital energy supplies, and Vladimir Putin
Babaryko, a banker who led Belarus’ arm of Russian energy firm Gazprom, was tipped to run Lukashenko close in August. His arrest lays bare the thin veneer of democracy Lukashenko has touted since his ascension in 1994. That leaves Tsepkalo.
That Tsepkalo’s resume is impressive lacks doubt. The 55-year-old was Lukashenko’s ambassador to the US and Mexico from 1997 to 2002, before founding Hi-Tech Park (HTP) in 2005. Since then it has become the mother temple for a tech scene that far outperforms its national KPIs. Under Soviet rule Belarus was an engineering and technical powerhouse. Tech now constitutes 6.5% of the country’s GDP, and boasts giants like EPAM, Wargaming and Viber.
HTP is essentially a free zone: Lukashenko was slow to warm to it. He once called entrepreneurs “fleas.” But in 2017 he U-turned and lifted bans on cryptocurrency transfers. He also fired Tsepkalo in mysterious circumstances, who traveled the post-Soviet world as a consultant, and launched an ill-fated biography site called Prabook.com.
Now he wants to be President. Light on policy, Tsepkalo wants to open Belarus’ economy and limit leadership to two terms. On the country’s choice between Russia and the West, he has been even less clear. “I think we should use every opportunity existing in the world, we should have excellent relations with all the countries,” he told Russian news outlet Sputnik this week.
“My take on it is kind of mixed,” says analyst Grigory Ioffe. “On the one hand, Tsepkalo is sort of a positive, very attractive personality, in terms of his role in establishing the Hi-Tech Park, and his managerial experience – he is good.
“On the other hand, I am very skeptical about his electoral prospects,” Ioffe adds. “And not only because of what most people would refer to…the generally authoritarian nature of the regime, and the ability to falsify a vote count.”
Lukashenko’s recent actions don’t suggest a man who will relinquish his throne without a fight. But there will be plenty in Russia, Europe—and the United States—hoping Tsepkalo can pull off a minor miracle, and help an already-promising market reach even higher heights.