By Daisy Sindelar
He's had an audience with the pope, inspected the national troops, and showed off his gold-plated pistol to the president of Russia.
By any measure, Mykalay Lukashenka -- or Kolya, as he's better known -- is not your average 6-year-old. But that's to be expected when your father is not the average progenitor, but Alyaksandr Lukashenka, Europe's "last dictator" and a merciless opponent of democratic change in his post-Soviet country.
The solemn, tow-headed Kolya has become regular TV viewing in Belarus, where he is shown accompanying Lukashenka on a wide range of presidential duties -- including a consultative trip to the ballot box during disputed elections in December that handed Lukashenka a controversial fourth term.
"We go into the voting booth, and he takes the ballot and starts to read," the president proudly recounted the day after, with the country still reeling from a night of brutal violence against opposition protesters. "It took him a long time to get to the bottom, and then he said, 'Oh, Papa -- here's Alyaksandr Lukashenka!' I asked him who he would vote for, and he said, 'You should vote for yourself.' And so I voted for myself -- for the first time in my life! And all thanks to a child."
'Completely, Utterly Lonely'
Such tender dialogue was enough to prompt a round of applause from the Belarusian bureaucrats assembled for the purpose. But it was jarring for those who witnessed the bloody aftermath of the vote, in which hundreds of opposition protesters were beaten and thrown in jail, including a majority of Lukashenka's presidential rivals.
No matter. For Lukashenka, who has long cultivated a public image as "Batska," or father to his nation, Kolya has proven a valuable asset, as well as the source of what observers agree is a genuinely loving father-son relationship.
The 56-year-old Belarusian president, who himself was raised without a father, has two grown sons, Viktar and Dzmitry, with his estranged wife, Halyna. But it is Kolya -- the out-of-wedlock offspring from a now-concluded affair with Lukashenka's former personal doctor, Iryna Abelskaya -- with whom the Belarusian dictator is enjoying what political analyst Uladzimir Padhol calls "the first truly loving relationship in his life."
"Lukashenka is very lonely. Completely, utterly lonely," says Padhol, who wrote a comparative analysis of the mentalities of Lukashenka and Adolf Hitler for his (undefended) doctoral dissertation. "He's distanced himself from everyone because he's afraid of everyone. He doesn't trust anyone. Even his older sons he sees as rivals who could be planning his removal from power."
He calls Kolya "a kind of psychological compensation for his loneliness."
"Because he loves him, he trusts him. They love and trust each other," says Padhol. "His son is the only person he can trust, because he's small and doesn't present any kind of threat."
Public, But Private
Belarusian politicians, by tradition, keep their family relations hidden from public view. And Kolya's existence was revealed only once the boy was 2 years old. Since then, however, he has been squarely in the public eye, maintaining a schedule that would exhaust even seasoned diplomats.
He's attended a tete-a-tete with the president of Armenia, inspected Belarusian troops while dressed in a miniature army uniform, and even had his head patted by Pope Benedict during a highly publicized visit by Lukashenka to the Vatican. ("The pope cried tears of joy over my son," the Belarusian leader later pronounced.)
Kolya's TV appearances rarely show him speaking or playing with other children. But small details, both prosaic and privileged, occasionally eke out about life as a presidential offspring. In one video of May Day celebrations at Minsk's Gorky Park, Kolya is shown clutching a gleaming new iPhone. In another, we learn he's allergic to chocolate. In still another, he's gently reminded by his father to thank Russian President Dmitry Medvedev for the gold-plated pistol he keeps in a holster.
In much of the footage -- such as the talks with Armenian leader Serzh Sarkisian, which he spent perched on his father's lap -- he comes across as a quiet, well-behaved, if slightly dazed, child. But journalist Alyaksandra Dynko says relatively little is known about Kolya. The orchestrated displays of familial companionship, she says, have always been more about the father than about the son.
"A man with a small child seems big and strong, and as a father, he looks sweet and he commands respect," says Dynko, who covers child-welfare issues for RFE/RL's Belarus Service. "The president himself has often used his little boy to show his human side. He calls him 'Little One,' he talks about how they celebrated the New Year holidays, how they watched the candidate debates on TV during the presidential election campaign. This is a way for the president to present himself simply and clearly to society. But all the same, no one is really paying attention to the child himself. The public doesn't have any definitive opinion about him."
Most recently, Kolya accompanied his father to his high-gloss inauguration in January. Dressed in matching suits, the two walked hand in hand along the vast expanse of Minsk's Palace of the Republic before Kolya was rerouted to a private seat and Lukashenka progressed alone to the stage.
Virtually everyone believes that Lukashenka spares no effort in securing his presidential longevity, rigging votes, keeping a chokehold on the media, and cracking down viciously on opponents. In cables released by the whistle-blower website WikiLeaks, U.S. diplomats in Minsk have described the Belarusian leader as a man who "intends to stay in power indefinitely and sees no reason to change his course."
Still, no man is immortal, and Lukashenka raised eyebrows when he suggested he was grooming Kolya as his eventual heir. Such a dynastic handover might seem less surprising in Central Asia or a country like Azerbaijan -- where the current leader, Ilham Aliyev, took over the presidency from his father, Heydar, and is openly preparing his own son (also Heydar) to follow suit. But few in Belarus appear to be taking the prospect of a President Kolya -- or the decades of Batska that would necessarily precede it -- very seriously.
In fact, observers say even Lukashenka loyalists are unenthusiastic about the president's devotion to his son. Valery Karbalevich, the author of a new Lukashenka biography, "Political Portrait," says advisers have urged the Belarusian leader to keep the Kolya sightings to a minimum.
"The Belarusian public reacted very negatively to the times he's been on TV with his father, especially when he's present during official business. So in terms of PR, Kolya has been more of a minus for him than a plus," says Karbalevich. "And if at first we frequently saw Lukashenka with his son, Kolya has since been on TV a lot less. Evidently someone explained to Lukashenka that it wasn't working to his advantage in terms of his ratings."
Two Children, Two Childhoods
Nor has Lukashenka's fatherly love worked to the advantage of other Belarusian children. Lukashenka prompted an international uproar earlier this year when his government threatened to detain the 3-year-old son of presidential candidate Andrey Sannikau and journalist Iryna Khalip, both jailed in the wave of arrests following December's post-election demonstrations. (Sannikau may have drawn Lukashenka's ire when, commenting on Kolya's troop inspection, he noted acidly that he was ashamed to see how grey-haired generals were forced to parade in front of a child in a costume "just because his dictator-father wanted it that way.")
Child welfare services eventually intervened, announcing the toddler could stay with his grandmother, and Khalip has since been released and reunited with her son pending trial. But the government's threat to seize custody of the boy sent a shiver through the Belarusian opposition community, signaling that Kolya or no Kolya, Lukashenka is seemingly prepared to introduce children as new pawns in his continued standoff with democracy supporters.
It's a situation that makes his apparent attachment to his son all the more perplexing -- and, to some child-welfare specialists, worrying as well.
Sondra Smith-Adcock, a specialist on child counseling at the University of Florida in the United States, says the footage of Kolya shows a child who may be isolated and barred from normal childhood rites. Even worse, she say, he may be an unwitting tool being used by his father to achieve his political ends.
"That child looks like a shield," she says. "It's as though Lukashenka was thinking, if I have this beautiful child here, if I show myself to be a caring and doting father, then people will back off from me. And the use of the child as a shield, or the fact that the child would be pulled profoundly into the father's world -- to the exclusion of any other relation to others -- is potentially quite sad to me. What I see is someone who uses the child to protect himself. He's probably as frightened as his son.