Calling all political biographers: We have here on the eastern edge of Europe a quirky modern dictator in desperate need of a world-class writer to tell his tale. Alexander Lukashenko, the long running ruler of Belarus, never ceases to surprise.
For starters, there is his 6-year-old son, Nikolai. The president dresses him up in various outfits, totes him around to various events, and calls him his “talisman.”
Two weeks ago, hours after a massive bomb blew up in a subway station 100 yards from the presidential residence in Minsk, Alexander and Nikolai picked their way down a shattered escalator and paid their respects with a memorial bouquet of flowers. (Nasha Niva, Belarus’s lone opposition newspaper, won an official reprimand for running a story alleging that the remains of a young woman, one of the 13 fatalities, still lay just a few yards away.)
For military parades, Lukashenko dresses up his mini-me in a beribboned dress uniform or in a camouflage green GI Joe outfit. Together, they review the troops.
For voting, father and son wear matching navy blue suits. Nikolai gets to drop the ballot in the box. (No scary suspense about the results.)
For their audience with Pope Benedict in the Vatican, Nikolai wore a simple white dress shirt. Back home in Belarus, where 15 percent of the population is Roman Catholic, malicious tongues clucked about the Vatican’s liberal open-door policy for photo ops with a conservative pope. Lukashenko, an unreconstructed communist, proudly calls himself “an orthodox atheist.” Nikolai is not the son of his wife, Galina Rodionovna. The boy’s mother reputedly is the president’s personal physician.
And therein lies rich material for a biographer with a psychoanalytical bent.
Lukashenko grew up with without a father and was taunted by Soviet classmates for having an unmarried mother. Sometime during the course of his 17 years in power, he started to encourage voters to call him “Batska,” or Daddy.
Perhaps growing up without a father taught Lukashenko to fend for himself and to trust no one.
Ministers long ago learned that they can be publicly berated and fired one day. And then six months later “Batska” calls them back to government service.
Everything that goes wrong is someone else’s fault. Or gets ignored. On Thursday, the president managed to talk on television for three hours without once mentioning this week’s 50-percent devaluation of the Belarussian ruble.
Loyalty and constancy are not in his political playbook.
On several occasions, Lukashenko has double-crossed Vladimir Putin, the undisputed political godfather of the Slavic world. Normally, this means political death. Last summer, relations were so poor that the Kremlin ordered up a series of slashing prime-time television exposés about “Batska.”
But Belarus is not a western oblast, or state, of Russia. It is an independent country. For the Kremlin, it is a vital buffer state between Russia and NATO.
So the Kremlin gates keep opening for Lukashenko. Putin, looking like he has swallowed a frog, grudgingly receives him. Dmitry Medvedvev, Putin’s understudy and Russia’s normally congenial president, also has a hard time forcing a smile in Lukashenko’s presence.
From the West, there is no love lost for the man whom Condoleezza Rice once dubbed “the last dictator in Europe.”
Two years ago, when I was on a break from journalism, I stopped by the American embassy during a visit to Minsk. Nine months earlier, the U.S. ambassador had been expelled. The three remaining American diplomats were playing the roles of Maytag repairmen – they had the skills and offices, but their telephones never rang.
The day I visited, I was invited to the embassy cafeteria for lunch. An Embassy officer slid his plastic tray next to mine and announced that his assignment was ending. In one hour, he was leaving for Minsk airport.
I innocently asked if he had any end-of-tour thoughts he would like to share about Lukashenko. That flipped his switch for a 15-minute tirade.
The bottom line was this: Lukashenko will do whatever is needed to stay in power. If necessary, he will zig west to Europe. If necessary, he will zag east to Moscow. Self-preservation is the sole goal. This spring he is zagging east to Moscow in hopes of landing a $3 billion bailout loan.
With this move, the real Lukashenko is once again out of the closet, unleashing anti-democracy tirades more often associated with 1930s Europe.
Fearful of public gatherings, he lectured his nation on Thursday that democracy should be “limited to a square meter around where you stand.”
“Brush shoulders with another person,” he warned, “and that is where your democracy ends.”
(Dictators say the darnedest things!)
Unfortunately, George Orwell is no longer with us to introduce “Batska” to his “Animal Farm.”
The field is wide open for a good psychobiography.