Depressed leader calls off his big day and vanishes

From Jeremy Page in Moscow
Times Online, UK

IT SEEMED a simple question: where was the President of Belarus, Aleksandr Lukashenko?

But on the eve of his planned visit to Moscow yesterday, no one could answer. And, in the absence of official information, rumours swirled that “Europe’s last dictator” was in hiding, suffering from severe depression. 

Mr Lukashenko has been seen just once since the day after he won a third term in an election widely condemned as a farce and he even postponed his own inauguration ceremony, scheduled for last Friday, to an unspecified date this month.

Now there is uncertainy over whether he will attend a meeting with President Putin today to mark the tenth anniversary of a loose union between Russia and Belarus.

The Kremlin could not confirm if he was coming; the Russian Foreign Ministry referred all questions to the Kremlin. There was no comment from the Belarussian Foreign Ministry and Presidential Administration, or from Belarussian embassies in Moscow and London.

One senior Western diplomat said he believed that Mr Lukashenko was suffering from a bout of depression brought on by the stress of the election and subsequent protests. “I think he’s unable to console himself and so he’s not being allowed out. His advisers don’t know what to do,” the diplomat told The Times.

Mr Lukashenko says he has protected Belarus’s ten million people from the chaos that followed the collapse of communism by resurrecting Soviet-style economic and political controls. But critics say he is a paranoid megalomaniac with a violent temper who has prevented vital economic reforms and brutally silenced all critics.

Aleksandr Milinkevich, the main opposition leader, says that Mr Lukashenko was shocked at the scale of the protests after the election.

Western governments have refused visas for Mr Lukashenko, and are meeting opposition leaders.

Another cause for stress emerged last week when Gazprom, the Russian gas monopoly, said it would raise the price of the gas it sells Belarus by five times next year, potentially crippling its economy.

Belarussian state television showed Mr Lukashenko chairing a meeting on March 28, at which he ordered officials to take down his portrait from their office walls.

“The political battles are over,” he said. “The country has peace and order like it had before, despite some disturbances that the police settled quickly and efficiently.”

But he looked strained, and the meeting appeared to have taken place at his country residence, not in Minsk.