Belarus’ Lukashenko and his Mini-me: Biographer Needed

Posted April 22nd, 2011 at 5:58 pm (UTC+0)
2 comments

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.”

Nikolai Lukashenko casts his father's ballot in Dec. 19, 2011 presidential elections

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.)

Russia's President Medvedev and Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko help Nikolai Lukashenko holster his very own gold-plated pistol.

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.

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko and his son Nikolai cruise in a holiday parade.

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.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

2 responses to “Belarus’ Lukashenko and his Mini-me: Biographer Needed”

  1. Pyotr says:

    I was really shocked when I saw the blockhead with a child on TV. What an idiot he must be to bring a child on the massmurder scene! And the president of the european state flaunting his bastard everywhere is a disgrace of Belarussia. Lukoshenko definitely needs a shrink.

  2. […] appeared at military events in a camouflage mini-uniform while carrying a gold-plated pistol, and delivered flowers to the scene of a deadly April 2011 bombing at a Minsk subway station. He has also accompanied his […]

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About

James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.

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