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Is Lukashenko dead?

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Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko was rushed back to Minsk almost directly from Red Square in Moscow on May 9 suffering from a serious but mysterious illness and hasn’t been seen since. The Belarus strongman is clearly seriously ill and some are asking if he is already dead.

President Vladimir Putin was reportedly shocked by the poor shape Lukashenko was in when they met in person on Red Square for the annual Victory Day parade. Lukashenko skipped the traditional leaders’ breakfast and had to be driven in an electric cart the 300m around the corner from Red Square to the flame of the Undying Soldier just outside the Kremlin walls. Pictures posted on social media seem to show an IV catheter protruding from his suit sleeve. From the memorial to the war dead he was driven directly to the airport with an ambulance in tow and flown home, according to reports.

Putin has reportedly tried to call him in the following days without success and the Belarus authorities have yet to comment. Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed questions on Lukashenko’s health, referring journalists to the president’s office in Minsk.

“Lukashenka had an extensive myocardial infarction; likely he was put into an artificial medical coma,” tweeted Jason Jay Smart, a correspondent for the Kyiv Post, citing a conversation with dissidents in Minsk.

The fact of Lukashenko’s disappearance and the presidential press service’s silence on the matter has led many to speculate that Lukashenko’s illness is clearly serious and to wonder whether the president has not already died.

“Lukashenko hasn’t been seen since Z-parade in Moscow on May 9, where he was visibly ill. This is very unusual for a country where, as the regime claims, “there is only one politician”. Independent media speculate that the old may be in a very bad condition or even dead,” says Smart.

This is not the first time that Lukashenko has been visibly ill with an unknown, but apparently serious, condition. During the coronavirus pandemic in 2021 he appeared on TV with what appeared to be an IV catheter bandage on his wrist, as shown by images captured by the opposition Telegram channel Nexta.

Vanishing leaders

Lukashenko’s invisibility since he left Moscow is gasoline to the flames of speculation, as the abrupt absence of normally high-profile autocrats is often a precursor of their demise. In most of the countries of emerging Eurasia, the authorities are reluctant to announce the death of the top man, to give his inner circle some time to negotiate a transition.

When Turkmen President Saparmut Niyazov, better known as Turkmenbashi, or “Father of the Turkmens”, died in December 2006 from obesity, nothing was announced for weeks until the cabal of the inner elite in Turkmenistan had agreed to replace him with President Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov, believed to be Turkmenbashi’s illegitimate son, who is still in power today.

Likewise, Uzbekistan’s first president Islam Karimov died in September 2016 after ruling the country since its independence, but he also disappeared after having a heart attack. That was followed by several weeks of negotiations, from which Shavkat Mirziyoyev emerged as the new president; he has taken the country in a new direction and launched extensive economic reforms. Notably, however, Mirziyoyev has not criticised Kairmov’s brutal rule and continues to call him the “father of our nation”. In order not to rock the boat, many of these leaders seek continuity with the previous regime to preserve their privileged position. Mirziyoyev is in an especially compromised position, as he served as Prime Minister under Karimov for many years.

Putin has done it too. He disappeared on March 5, 2015 and was not seen for two full weeks, leading to a starburst of speculation starting with the possibility that he was dead. The most colourful of the theories was that he had gone to Switzerland to celebrate the birth of a lovechild by his long rumoured lover, gymnast Alina Kabayeva. Since then Kabayeva has had three children, lives in luxury, but has never revealed who the father of her children is. Putin eventually reappeared on March 16 in a meeting with Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev in St Petersburg, but an explanation for his absence was never given.

The most recent mystery celebrity disappearance was of Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu last April about one and half months into the war in Ukraine. Rumours swirled that the 66-year-old had suffered from a “massive heart attack”, induced by the strain of running a war that was rapidly going wrong, and was in a critical condition.

Again the Kremlin dismissed the claims, and said he was “working on documents,” a phrase well-known to Russians, as that was the standard excuse for former president Boris Yeltsin’s frequent disappearances due to ill health and alcohol abuse.

In Shoigu’s case the Kremlin went as far as releasing some video footage of Shoigu in meetings and photos apparently showing him at work that were quickly shown to have been doctored. However, if Shoigu was ill, he has made a full recovery and is back at work now.

The Kremlin seems to have learnt a few lessons since then. Russia’s veteran 72-year-old Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was taken straight from the plane to hospital on landing in Jakarta in Indonesia for a G20 summit, sparking rumours of a heart attack.

As the ambulance could not escape the attention of the assembled press corps gathered to cover his arrival, the Kremlin said only that he had gone for a “check-up.” Lavrov later released some photos of himself jovially sitting on the terrace of his “hotel” looking fit. However, the terrace was later geo-located to the garden of a clinic and not a hotel, suggesting his medical problem was more serious than he was willing to admit to.

What happens if Lukashenko dies?

If Lukashenko is already dead then in theory fresh elections should be held and a new president elected; however, that is unlikely to happen.

Belarus was thrown into uproar after Lukashenko massively falsified the results of the August 2020 elections, returning himself to office with a massive landslide. The few independent results from the voting reported by rebel polling stations# suggest that the wife of an opposition candidate, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, actually won by a landslide. The country erupted into mass demonstrations within hours of the official result being announced and the head of the Central Election Committee fled the country in fear of her life. Tikhanovskaya fled into exile a few days later after being threatened with arrest by Belarus’ KGB. Her husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, has been in jail ever since.

The authorities will be unwilling to risk a repeat performance. Fresh elections would almost certainly ignite fresh protests, which were only quelled before by Belarus’ freezing winter in 2021 and brutal police repression once the crowds on the street every weekend became small enough to manage.

Lukashenko has already prepared the ground for one of his sons to take over by increasing the authority of the Security Council which his son chairs. Similar to the informal mechanisms used to choose successors in Central Asia, Lukashenko has merely institutionalised a similar confab of the elite and given it a legal base.

It remains to be seen if the Security Council will be allowed to take power or choose a successor, as Russian social media is already speculating that the Union State deal signed with Russia in 1999 could be rushed to completion and Belarus subsumed into Russia in some form. At the least the Kremlin will interfere and push its own preferred presidential candidate on Minsk to maintain the tight bonds between the two countries and increase its control at the same time.