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Belarus in Focus
Online guide for journalists writing about Belarus. Find out who's who in business, society or politics, get practical tips and contacts, and read about other journalists' experiences. Got some more questions? Get in touch with us.
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How to enter
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Belarus in Focus 2011
Katarzyna Kwiatkowska

Katarzyna Kwiatkowska specializes in Eastern European issues. She writes a regular blog called Zrozumiec Rosj? (To understand Russia) for Polityka, a leading Polish weekly magazine, and is a member of Res Publica Nowa, a quarterly that seeks to enhance public debate in Poland. In addition, she is a publicist of the portal ‘Wirtualna Polska’.

Katarzyna’s articles have been published in Gazeta Wyborcza, Tygodnik Powszechny, Polityka and New Eastern Europe, as well as in Russian and Ukrainian media. She received the Pen of Hope award from Amnesty International for her interview with Oleg Alkaev, formerly head of an execution group in Belarus and was nominated in 2012 for the Grand Press award for her report from Beslan "Umieramy we wrze?niu" (‘We will die in September’). Currently, Katarzyna is writing a book about Ukraine.

Her first experience in Belarus was as a student at the Belarusian Legal Sciences Institute. Katarzyna is the co-editor of a book about Belarusian students living in Poland, published in 2008.

David Marples Entertaining and gossipy, with some insights into the family background of the president. It has a benevolent feel to it despite the sensitivity of the topic.
Yuliya Slutskaya Well written, using a wealth of sources. A great investigative piece!
Oliver Money-Kyrle Well-written piece providing an important insight into the private life of a dictator, and how it warps his relationship with women, and his sons. Also reveals how the advice of a renowned British PR expert on how to soften Lukashenko’s public image by posing with his children, can spectacularly backfire.
Polona Frelih A dark comedy about Lukashenko junior’s stranger than fiction life where reality is hardly distinguished from myths. A perfect example of Lukashenko’s lost grip on reality.

Operation Successor

Polityka, July 24, 2012

Foreign PR advisors insisted that his son should have warmed the Belarusian dictator’s image. Alexander Lukashenka took their advice to heart, yet, as usual, he overdid it

Close to the presidential office everyone is walking around on tiptoes. “He hates it when you disturb him”  - says N., a frequent visitor to the presidential palace. “There are several guards ensuring silence in the corridors. But they are helpless when it comes to Kolya, who rides his scooter over the red carpets making a lot of noise”.  

Seven-year-old Nikolai, diminutively called Kolya, is Lukashenka’s youngest son and the apple of his eye. The Belarusian leader loves to be seen with him in public, he dresses the boy in tailored suits and takes him on official trips, ignoring diplomatic protocol. And so Kolya mows with his father during a harvest festival. As a three-year-old he attended the opening of Beijing Olympics. He watched the recent Euro cup final with some prime ministers, presidents and a Spanish heir to the throne. Together with his father, he had a private audience with the pope, he sat on Lukashenka’s lap during his talks with the Armenian president and he went for a walk with Vladimir Putin.

Pistols and chocolate

In June the family tandem visited Cuba, Venezuela and Ecuador. In Caracas Lukashenka said that he would “pass the baton on to  Kolya”, while Venezuelan paparazzi spotted a pistol in seven-year-old’s breast pocket. Lukashenka is pleased with his son’s military interests. In December, during a yearly press conference, one journalist asked what Kolya would get for Christmas. “I do not allow him to eat chocolate, he does not react well. The most precious thing he can get is a weapon”. “A toy weapon”? – the journalist asked. “No, no, at least a pneumatic gun, he’s too old for toys” – Lukashenka replied.

Three years ago, during Belarusian-Russian military maneuvers, Kolya, dressed in fatigues, delightedly presented a gold painted pistol to Dmitri Medvedev. Lukashenka boasted to journalists that when the kid was one-year-old he started to take him to saunas. “At first he cried. But now he is able to stand one hundred degrees Celsius and then a bath full of ice”. Despite the obvious brutality of paternal methods, there are no signs of criticism by experienced Belarusian pedagogues.

The first child of the state arouses the emotions of his fellow citizens. For example, bloggers hunt for the slightest details about junior’s life, writing that Kolya kicks generals and bites flight attendants. He supposedly told one of them then when he finally becomes a minister he will give orders to execute her for forcing him to fasten his seatbelt. It’s hard to verify this kind of information. In Belarus, like in most authoritarian states, any news concerning the private lives of officials is highly regulated. Where there are no fact, legends are born.

N. says: “Kolya truly behaves like a little prince. He gives orders to the adults. He doesn’t like it when you don’t listen to him. But in general, he’s a kind, intelligent boy. He’s quite grown-up, he speaks carefully, and the rumors concerning his excesses are exaggerated”.

The subotnik - a day of social work organized by the state - is an important event in Belarus. On that occasion television broadcasts the head of the state laboring for the people’s wellbeing. In April 2008, Lukashenka was working arm in arm with a mysterious boy. Soon afterwards, the Russian Press Agency Interfaks revealed that he has, in fact, three sons, and not two, as earlier propaganda claimed. On July 3rd 2008, during Independence Day (commemorating the liberation of Belarus by the Red Army) Kolya stood on the tribune next to the president. Since then, father and son have become inseparable.

At that time, Lukashenka’s reputation was taken care of by Sir Timothy Bell, a world-famous specialist on political marketing. The Belarusian president took the Brit’s advice to heart, who once helped Margaret Thatcher to win the elections. A tiny Kolya became his shadow. “Belarusians accepted the third son” – says Svetlana Kalinkina, who co-authored Lukashenka’s biography. “But with time, some doubts have come to the fore, because he took away Kolya’s childhood and the boy is growing up without his mother”.

 An ordinary school

“Our inquisitive reader would like to know who the mother is of your youngest son” – the editor in-chief of the tabloid Komsomolskaja Pravda asked Lukashenka in 2008. “There is nothing to hide. The mother is a doctor. It all comes from the Lord! I went with my son to Vladimir Vladimirovitsch. Putin said that children are sacred, a gift from God. For me even more so” – Lukashenka answered.

Though he never revealed the name of Nikolai’s mother, there is no doubt that it is Iryna Abelska. – “When he became a president in 1994, his people started to search for a private physician” – says Kalinkina. – “The terms of the appointment were unusual. It was supposed to be a women in her mid-thirties, preferable divorced and with a child”. The choice was made and an endocrinologist from Brest took the position. The presidential affair with a doctor was an open secret. Abelska lived in a residence in Drozdy, in the suburbs of Minsk, and she accompanied Lukashenka on his many trips. During a visit to France in 1996, the president, who did not care about diplomatic etiquette, unceremoniously asked his minister of foreign affairs to leave his apartment, so that the young doctor could take it.

For years, Abelska was considered one of the most influential females in Belarus. In reality, she did not care about politics. In 2001 she became head of the presidential clinic, and her mother, whom the press named “mother-in-law”, took the portfolio of the minister of health.

Subordinates remember Abelska well. – “She did not allow the wife of one of the oppositionists, who worked in her dependent medical commission, to get fired” – Kalinkina recalls.

When in 2004 Abelska gave birth to Kolya, her relationship with the president was coming to an end. Wayward Backa [‘lit ‘Daddy’, Lukashenka’s nickname] preferred young stars of stage. Jealous Abelska must have left. In 2007, during a visit to the clinic, the president publicly remanded her. The former female minion was soon fired and it happened one month after her mother passed away. She disappeared from public life and the astonished inhabitants of Minsk could allegedly see her in one of the municipal hospitals, where she was taking care of ordinary mortals. In 2010 fortune smiled upon her again. She managed to come back to the clinic, to her former position. She is seeing her son. Lukashenka’s love is possessive. “My son is my tail. Especially when he started to grow, he shouldn’t be left with anyone. Anyone!” – he confessed to Komsomolskaja Pravda in 2008.

In September last year Kolya went to school for the first time. The overhaul that the school had had two years earlier, worth – as independent journalists claim – more than 3 million dollars, is proof that it was not chosen at random. It’s an ordinary school, as the president likes to underline, but it has a vast swimming pool as well as choreography, music and theater classes. Guards are always nearby and there is a metal detector at the entrance.  After holidays Kolya will go to 2nd class. When he performed the main character in a festive show, his father, squeezed in between two corpulent ladies, seemed to be truly moved. But Kolya’s friends do not see him much, as he spends most of his time with his president father. Recently, when the ministry of education launched an anti-truant campaign, the opposition began to ask whether the presidential son would be properly punished.

Brothers and teddy bears

Officially, Lukashenka is still married to Galina, the mother of his two sons. The first lady still lives near Shklov, in the eastern part of the country, in a kolkhoz that was run by the future president two decades ago. She does not appear in public and is permanently under the special forces’ strict supervision. The house in which she lives is the only estate that Lukashenka declares as his own property, making him- at least on paper – the poorest president in the Commonwealth of Independent States. But poor Backa loves to be surrounded by luxury. The photographs published on the occasion of Putin’s visit disclose the marbled splendor, hidden before peeping gazes in a residence in Drozdy, an expensive district of Minsk, populated by the ruling elite. The president’s real fortune is a closely guarded secret. It cannot be small. During the eighteen years of his rule he has turned the country into a family company. The oligarchs are his close collaborators and his two older sons are actively engaged in the family business. The younger one, 31-year-old Dmitry, is head of the presidential sport club. The older one, 36-year-old Viktor, is a member of the National Security Council and supervises the KGB. Both young Lukashenkas hardly show up in public. The exception is May 9th, when they march with their father in a victory parade.  

A lot of Belarusians think that showing up with a child is proof that Backa is losing his grip on reality. In April last year he took Kolya to the metro station, at which – one hour earlier – there had been an explosion. They went underground, though the area had not yet been cleaned of blood and body parts (the later trial would end with the execution of the two alleged perpetrators). Shocked Belarusians asked in the name of what the father exposed the little child to such an experience. And soon they had their answer: he is grooming him to be his successor. Earlier they joked that the dictator would hand over power to his first-born son and Belarus would become a monarchy. But the family patriarch is not willing to resign. “Viktor will always be worse than the current president” – Backa said in one of his interviews, letting others know that he throws cold water on his ambitious older son, who has a poor record anyway. This is why Kolya is an ideal successor, and that is his greatest tragedy.

The latest evidence of Lukashenka’s lost grip on reality is how the authorities dealt with the “teddy bear affair”. Swedish activists pride themselves that in mid-July they flew over the Lithuanian border on a small plane, went on to the capital and threw out airborne teddy bears (you can watch the whole action on YouTube). Military officials nervously deny this, wriggling like eels. A special commission has been set up to meticulously investigate the provocative flight. The KGB immediately arrested a photographer Anton Suriapin, who was the first to publish pictures of the scattered toys. In Belarus you can hear that if the Swedes really have managed to throw them, one of the teddies should go to Kolya. Maybe he would like it better than his pneumatic gun.

Article originally published (in Polish):,1,

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