By Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber
MOSCOW (Reuters) - A presidential contender who says he fled Belarus because he feared for his freedom and custody of his children has told Reuters the country's opposition is pinning its hopes on a candidate he characterised as a latter-day Joan of Arc.
Valery Tsepkalo, who was this month barred from running in an Aug. 9 election against veteran President Alexander Lukashenko, fled to Russia with his two young sons, fearing they could be taken away, his campaign said on Friday.
Authorities disqualified Tsepkalo, 55, from the race after saying they suspected some of the signatures he had collected in his support had been forged, an allegation he denies.
His campaign said officials from the General Prosecutor's Office has visited his sons' school to try to strip him and his wife of their parental rights. The General Prosecutor's Office has denied trying to take his children away.
Tsepkalo, who said he suspected he would meet the same fate as two other opposition figures who have been jailed, said he had no choice but to flee.
"If I would be imprisoned, then I cannot speak openly about what is happening in Belarus," the former diplomat told Reuters at a cafe in central Moscow. "Lukashenko's idea was to split us all and to destroy us one by one and he really did that."
Lukashenko has denied that any opposition figures have been jailed for political reasons, saying law-enforcement policies were aimed at preventing chaos in the country.
Tsepkalo, a successful entrepreneur, said he hoped the opposition had thwarted Lukashenko by uniting behind Svetlana Tikhanouskaya, the wife of an anti-government blogger who has taken her husband's place in the election.
Tikhanouskaya has joined forces with Tsepkalo's wife Veronika and a female campaign team member from another camp to try to unseat Lukashenko, who has dismissed women as being too fragile to run Belarus.
'JOAN OF ARC'
"Lukashenko couldn't expect that we would be able to organise behind one person who appears to be for Belarus society a symbol, like the symbol of the French resistance movement Joan of Arc," said Tsepkalo. He was referring to the 15th-century teenage girl who led the French to victory against the English army, which was besieging the city of Orleans.
Lukashenko, a 65-year-old former collective farm manager, has ruled for over a quarter of a century. He says he has delivered economic and political stability, with the state continuing to provide for many of people's needs.
He has accused opponents of plotting to overthrow him by force and accused Russian and Polish forces of trying to meddle in the election, something Moscow and Warsaw deny.
Tsepkalo described how he had taken a 700-km minibus ride to Moscow from Minsk, the Belarusian capital, with his seven-year-old twins, with only a small suitcase and plastic bags filled with their belongings.
Lukashenko's refusal to take measures to mitigate the COVID-19 crisis had galvanised opposition against him, he said.
The president has told people to drink vodka and take saunas to keep the disease at bay.
Tsepkalo added that the public was also fed up with economic stagnation.
A former ambassador to the United States, Tsepkalo said he hoped to travel to Ukraine and Poland to try to shape public opinion about his country's political problems.
Asked if he feared for his wife back home, Tsepkalo said he sensed Lukashenko's government had yet to determine how to handle female opposition figures.
"I hope that I will be able to go back as soon as possible because I love my country," Tsepkalo said. "I would like to see my country be a good, democratic and prosperous state."
(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Additional reporting by Dmitry Madorsky and Evgenia Novozhenina; Editing by Andrew Osborn and Pravin Char)