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Alexander Lukashenko brings his 16-year-old son onto frontline as protests endanger succession plans

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Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko and his son Nikolai Lukashenko - Getty Images AsiaPac
Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko and his son Nikolai Lukashenko – Getty Images AsiaPac

Pictured last weekend sporting body armour and an assault rifle, Belarus’s embattled dictator has shown the world that he does not plan to go down without a fight.

Yet as Alexander Lukashenko defies protesters calling for his downfall, it is not just his own fate that hangs in the balance. So does that of his 15-year-old son, Nikolai – his presumed heir to power.

Ever since he was old enough to walk, Nikolai has been paraded at his father’s side, meeting world leaders at the highest level. By the age of 11, he had been pictured with everyone from Barack Obama and the Pope through to  China’s Xi Jinping.

Last weekend, he also had a starring role in his father’s belligerent photo op, dressed in military fatigues and likewise clutching an AK-47.

One picture showed him and his father disembarking from a helicopter, accompanied by the riot police Mr Lukashenko has used to crack down on protesters. Another showed Nikolai guarding Mr Lukashenko in his palace in Minsk, as thousands demonstrated outside.

The constant photos of the pair together over the years have fuelled fears that Mr Lukashenko wants a North Korean-style dynastic regime – something opponents regard as their worst nightmare.  

Nikolai Lukashenko during a military parade in 2009 - Getty Images Europe Nikolai Lukashenko during a military parade in 2009 - Getty Images Europe
Nikolai Lukashenko during a military parade in 2009 – Getty Images Europe

Nikolai is the youngest of Mr Lukashenko’s three sons, and believed to be the offspring of an affair the president had with Irina Abelskaya, his former personal physician. The teenager has two adult siblings: Viktor, who sits on a national security council, and Dmitry, who chairs a state-run sports organisation.

Only Nikolai, though, has been groomed in public as a potential successor. Since his first appearance aged four, when he and his father reviewed the annual Independence Day parade in Minsk, he has been a regular presence when the president strides the world stage.

Among the fellow autocrats his father has introduced him to are the late Hugo Chavez, with whom he exchanged high-fives, and the then Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, who gave him a golden pistol.

During state occasions in Belarus, dignitaries are obliged to accord the boy due protocol. Nigel Gould-Davies, Britain’s former ambassador to Minsk, had to shake hands with him at a presidential reception in Minsk, even though Nikolai was only five years old at the time. Belarus generals are also expected to salute him.

As he has come of age, Nikolai has carved a public profile in his own right, doing Soviet-style photo ops of visits to grain farms and OAP homes. He also plays in a national ice hockey team, and is an accomplished pianist.

Last year, Mr Lukashenko denied that he was grooming his offspring to take over, insisting: “My children are not preparing for any power transfer.”

However, his glowing comments about Nikolai have left many unconvinced. In one interview, he described him as “very enlightened and mature”, adding that he even allows him to criticise aspects of his rule. “He is my main source of opposition”, he joked.

Pope Francis exchanges gifts with President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko and his son Nikolai - Getty Images Europe Pope Francis exchanges gifts with President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko and his son Nikolai - Getty Images Europe
Pope Francis exchanges gifts with President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko and his son Nikolai – Getty Images Europe

Andrew Wilson, of University College London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies, said Nikolai was sometimes spoken of as “a potential successor”, although such a move would require major changes to Belarus’s constitution.  

The president is not the only one who speaks highly of Nikolai. As he approaches adulthood, his striking good looks – thought to be inherited from his mother – have caught the attention of Russian gossip magazines.

Earlier this year, Russia’s Cosmopolitan wrote a gushing profile of the “Young Heir to the President of Belarus”, pointing out now that he now had an army of female admirers on social media.

One Russian woman, referencing the popularity of potatoes in Belarussian cuisine, declared: “I want mashed potatoes for breakfast, fried potatoes for lunch, and Kolya Lukashenko for dinner.“

Indeed, his fan base in Russia may now soon get to see rather more of him. Should his father eventually bow to public pressure and step down, Moscow has been talked of as a possible bolthole for the Lukashenko clan.

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