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  • Writer's picturePaul Hansbury

BELARUS NOTES #2: LUKASHENKA'S HEALTH

I’m resisting a click-bait worthy title. BNE Intellinews has gone with the bold: ‘Is Lukashenko Dead?’ Like most people commenting on this matter, I do not know the truth and I am reluctant to jump to any conclusions. Rumours of ill-health thrive on a dictator’s disappearance from the public eye, and a (healthy?) scepticism about such claims is therefore in order.

But something clearly isn’t right with Alyaksandr Lukashenka. He hasn’t been seen in public since his visit to Moscow for Victory Day early last week. That makes six days – an unusual absence given the personalist regime in Belarus – and there has been no official comment from his administration.


The rumours begin


Lukashenka’s tired appearance at the parade in Moscow started it. Sharp-eyed observers noticed that his right hand was bandaged. The most significant indication that all was not well was that Lukashenka appeared unable to walk even a very short distance. As Putin and his guests proceeded round the corner from Red Square into Aleksandrovskiy Garden, where they were to lay flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Lukashenka followed in an electric vehicle (see from 1:35 in the video here). He then left Moscow, missing a breakfast with other guests, and returned to Minsk.


At Belarus’s own Victory Day event Lukashenka did not deliver a speech, leaving defence minister Viktar Khrenin to do so instead. Then, yesterday, Lukashenka missed the annual National Flag and Emblem Day ceremony and his prime minister Raman Halouchenka delivered an address in his place.

Different unofficial sources, independent of each other as far as I can make out, claimed that he was admitted to hospital on Saturday. Some suggested he may have been discharged a couple of hours later. Flight tracking suggested that a Russian official plane travelled to Minsk over the weekend, which some people interpreted as signs of concern in (or medical help from) Moscow.


Competing claims


Across the weekend, the rumours were spreading fast. A popular claim is that Russian actors poisoned Lukashenka whilst he was in Moscow. I think that claim can be scotched for a couple of reasons. First of all, Lukashenka’s calendar suggests he was already on reduced activities before going to Moscow; and, secondly, in a recording of a speech he gave a few days before the Moscow visit his voice was noticeably hoarse.

It therefore looks like he was unwell before travelling to Moscow. Rumours of poisoning are, accordingly, most likely wide of the mark. As well, if it were true, I would expect the Russian propaganda machine to be putting out its own counter-claims that either that the Ukrainians or Americans were somehow responsible. I have not seen that.


But clearly something is up. Some say he has been operated on for a heart condition, others – more dramatically – that he had a massive heart attack and is in a coma. On Sunday a Russian parliamentary deputy said that there was nothing out of the ordinary (‘nichego sverkh’estestvenno’ – literally ‘nothing supernatural’) and that Lukashenka had ‘just fallen ill’.


In so far as regime supporters are saying anything, they claim that others in Lukashenka’s entourage have been suffering from the flu recently. The flu can certainly put even the strongest out of action for a couple of weeks, though it wouldn’t obviously explain the bandage on his hand (which might indicate he had been on a drip?). Perhaps the bandage is unrelated.


Yet others claim that he is not ill at all. According to them, this is all theatre – a convenient way for Lukashenka to keep Belarus’s own troops out of direct involvement in the war in Ukraine. In respect of that, the Belarusian foreign minister’s trip to Moscow beginning today will be closely scrutinised. But I don’t see much credibility in this claim. The idea that Lukashenka can stand on a podium in a few days’ time and pooh-pooh stories of his ill-health (or worse) is difficult to imagine.


Lukashenka – now the Not-So-Strongman?


What is clear is that this prolonged absence will put a dent in Lukashenka’s ‘strongman’ image. He has tried to portray himself as a leader in robust health, whether that’s through images of him playing ice hockey or harvesting potatoes.

In general, despite being overweight, the sixty-eight-year-old Lukashenka has looked fit and well. Even suggestions that he has had minor heart attacks in the past haven’t really afflicted that image.

But after this prolonged absence from the public eye there will only be many more doubts about his physical condition. Lukashenka has built a highly personalist political system in Belarus, one dependent on him for its stability (albeit that the regime was seriously challenged in 2020, as described in my new book).


Serious doubts about Lukashenka’s health can only weaken the regime in the short and medium-term. And the weak will suffer what they must.


Image credit: Cropped from the original by Kremlin.ru, used under creative commons licence 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=128112863

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