MINSK - At the age of nine he has already met a pope and a few presidents. He likes guns and carries around a gold-plated pistol he was given by former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
Wearing his mini-uniform, he attends military parades and takes part in high-level meetings. Meet Kolya, the youngest son of Belarusian President, Alexander Lukashenko.
The nine-year-old ranks 43rd on the list of Belarus’ top 100 most influential people, according to the local independent weekly magazine Nasza Niwa. He sits higher on the list than the head of the Orthodox Church, the vice-chief of president’s administration -- and all the opposition politicians.
President Lukashenko rarely goes anywhere without his son, so Kolya – the diminutive of Nikolas – has already attended an audience with Pope Benedict XVI and meetings with Hugo Chavez, Raul Castro, and the presidents of Russia, Ukraine and Armenia, among others.
A little prince
In April 2008, President Lukashenko appeared for the first time in public in the company of a young boy. They worked side-by-side on the construction of a huge sport hall, mixing and pouring concrete. The next day, a photo of them was on all the front pages, accompanied by the title “Who is the boy?” No one had the answer, and the presidential press office denied knowing anything.
The boy’s identity didn’t stay secret for long. A few days later, during a television documentary, the child was seen addressing the president as “dad.” That is how Belarus learned the existence of the Lukashenko’s third – and secret – son.
Kolya was born in 2004 to Iryna Abelskaja, Lukashenko’s former personal doctor. So why did Belarus only learn of the child in 2008? At that time, the president had just enlisted the services of Lord Timothy Bell, a famous British PR expert who was tasked with improving the perception of Belarus in the West.
Exposing the child to the public was one of Bell’s ideas to soften the image of Lukashenko – who has been called the “last European dictator.” Lukashenko has denied the speculations: “This is not a PR campaign. Am I the only president with children? Yes, Kolya belongs to politics. That is his destiny as a presidential child.”
Like father, like son
Since his first public appearance, Kolya has accompanied his father everywhere. Together they regularly visit workplaces, meet with World War II veterans and attend cultural events. During military parades, the child is saluted by soldiers and generals alike. “When he learns on the television that I have been somewhere without him, he makes a scene,” says Lukashenko.
Kolya’s strong personality manifested itself early. The president revealed that in kindergarten, his son would never want to take his mandatory afternoon nap. He would ask the director for authorization to play, which would be granted immediately. For the past two years he has been home-schooled – but it is unclear why. Kolya has his father’s difficult character, as the president himself once confessed.
The boy has never been seen with his mother. The Russian press speculates that Lukashenko doesn’t let her see her son, something that the president has never addressed publicly.
President Lukashenko, 59, who has been in power since 1994, has declared that he considers Kolya as his successor – a statement he later recanted, saying the whole idea of a political dynasty had been invented by the opposition to scare Belarusians.
Meanwhile the Belarusian’s contempt for their long-ruling president has now partially shifted to Kolya. There has been a lot of criticism of the fact that the boy was born out of wedlock and various rumors on the Internet have said that he was the son of a stewardess, or that he bit and spat at a police officer. The general belief is that Kolya is allowed to do whatever he wants.
“Society reacts negatively toward Kolya because his presence during official meetings is obviously inappropriate,” says AleÅ› Ancipienka, a media expert. The country’s antipathy toward his son worries President Lukashenko. If he loses power, he has said he hopes that no one will “victimize my children, especially the youngest ones. I hope they will be able to live and work peacefully, without being stigmatized about their father."
Kolya’s future is difficult to predict. Lukashenko’s two other sons, who are older, are public officials. Wiktor is a presidential adviser for security and supervises all the related ministries. The second son, Dzmitryj, is the head of the presidential sport club.
In an interview with a Latvian TV station, Kolya said that he would like to join Spetnaz – military special forces – to defend his homeland.