From the age of 5, he has rubbed shoulders with the most feted and feared world leaders, from the Obamas and two successive popes to Hugo Chavez and Vladimir Putin. By 7 he had been gifted a handgun made of gold by Dmitry Medvedev, who was Russia’s president at the time.
This week, Nikolay Lukashenko, the youngest son of the “last dictator in Europe,” came of age during the worst period of his father’s reign. With 100,000 protesters demanding Alexander Lukashenko’s resignation and free and fair elections in Minsk, the 15-year-old flew over the crowds in a helicopter, all dressed up in the tactical gear of an elite commando. Another image released by the regime showed him sitting at a table opposite his father with an automatic rifle at his side, apparently ready to defend his life.
Like much of his 26-year rule, the bravado does not match the reality, but it’s clear that Lukashenko Sr. is warning a rebellious nation that he is going nowhere. Amid popular outcry over corrupt elections earlier this month, he told protesters they would have to kill him before a fresh presidential election would be granted. With his heavily armed son waiting in the wings, even the death of Lukashenko may not signal the end of Europe’s only surviving autocracy west of Moscow.
“Lukashenko said publicly many times that he would fire back until the very last bullet,” a Belarusian political insider told The Daily Beast. “The appearance of Lukashenko with his son was supposed to demonstrate that they are not cowards and will fight till the very end.”
Video footage of the surreal scene on the helicopter was released on Sunday. Lukashenko Jr., widely known as Kolya, struggled to adjust his combat gear as if it was a school backpack. “So, where are they?” he asked of the protesters below. Lukashenko responded: “They learned you’d be here, so they’ve escaped like rats.”
It was Kolya’s most prominent appearance during the weeks of protest. The conversation between father and son summed up the family’s attitude to their subjects.
“This child grew up without his mother. He was spoiled, allowed anything he wanted,” Pavel Marinich, an exiled opposition leader, told The Daily Beast. “This boy has heard that the Belarusian nation is ‘little people;’ that women cannot be presidents; that the real role of women is ‘to decorate the world.’ He also heard his father say: ‘People do not become presidents, they are born to be presidents.’”
Technically, Kolya cannot become president until he is 35 under the Belarusian constitution, but Lukashenko has shown scant regard for the rule of law in the past.
As a baby, very little was known about Kolya. Until 2007, his existence was scarcely acknowledged and his mother has never been publicly identified, although he is believed to be the child of Lukashenko’s former personal physician. Once he was 5, he became a mascot taken wherever Lukashenko went. Explaining why he brought Kolya, dressed in a tiny military uniform, to so many formal parades, the president said: “If I am not at home, he cannot sleep, he cannot eat, he is not a child at all.”
He attended meetings with heads of states and sat at the General Assembly of the United Nations, where he met Michelle and Barack Obama. He shook hands with his dad’s political partners in Russia, Asia, and Latin America. The photographs taken when he met Chavez showed a handgun in a holster under his child-sized suit.
Lukashenko has said that of his three sons, Nikolay, who “has the sharp character of his father,” is the likely successor. The other two boys, from a failed marriage, have had relatively little public prominence. Kolya “might become the president in some 20 years,” Lukashenko once said.
Since Kolya was a toddler, his father has jailed his opponents and potential presidential rivals.
But this year Lukashenko’s KGB and police demonstrated outrageous violence. According to Human Rights Watch, more than 7,000 people were detained in just four days. “All of them suffered abuse, male detainees were beaten, in most cases both by detaining officers and at the detention center,” said Tanya Lokshina, associate director for Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division. “The women were ill-treated, humiliated, some were beaten; several cases of rape have been reported.”
Kolya, a tall blond teenager, is familiar with his father’s poor treatment of women. His mother has been erased from public life— Lukashenko explained to the nation that his son was “from God”—and an ex-wife was also sidelined. Women, the president believes, should have no fewer than three children and should all be a specific height: “A woman should be 165-175 centimeters, that is normal for a woman,” he has said.
There was a time when Kolya’s supposed mother, Irina Abelskaya, appeared in public alongside the president but then other women, much younger than his mother but also blonde, took her place.
Lukashenko prefers to be seen with models; several of his temporary partners were winners of beauty contests. He regularly took an escort of four striking women to his official meetings, in the fashion of Gaddafi’s bevvy of nurses. He argued that it was a beneficial work practice. “My beauties are coming, one is blond, another one brunette and everybody around forgets about the paperwork and just stares at them. So, I got it: they are my real weapon,” he once said, about the female members of his service.
Even Kolya’s memories of his childhood fade, there are ample photographic and video reminders all over the internet. It is unclear if the teenager runs his own social media accounts, as most of the images on his Instagram and VK accounts look to have been officially collated, but there are scores of images elsewhere, often posted by Russian fans of the boy who is growing into a dashing young man.
Whether it’s a sweetheart image posted by Russian fangirls on VK or a state-issued photograph of a future leader with a semi-automatic, it’s hard to know what Kolya is really thinking. Some Russian speaking internet users have been joking about saving the boy from his father: "Kolya Lukashenko, shoot into the air, if the old man holds you a hostage," Alexander Litreyev wrote on Twitter.
The harm done to a child growing up in this kind of environment is impossible to calculate from the outside, it is unknown if he has his father’s thirst for power or wishes to fade into the background when Lukashenko finally leaves office. Whatever this potential boy-king is thinking, hundreds of thousands of Belarusian protesters are determined that the county’s next president will be elected, not born into power.