TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — For nearly a week, the whereabouts of Belarus’ authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko have been a mystery.
The 68-year-old was seen at a May 9 Victory Day parade in Moscow’s Red Square, looking pale and bloated, and he skipped a celebratory breakfast in the Kremlin to fly home. Later that day, he appeared at similar event in his capital of Minsk to mark the victory over Nazi Germany in World War II, but then skipped other scheduled appearances for days, feeding speculation on social media about his health.
On Monday, the state news agency Belta reported Lukashenko inspected an air force installation. A photo posted to the presidential website showed him standing stiffly in a military jacket, taking a salute from an officer, while another showed him sitting at a command post desk. A video of Lukashenko speaking to the military later appeared in a Telegram channel with ties to the presidential press service.
The intent of the media was clear -– to dispel rumors and reports that Lukashenko was seriously ill — but they also raised some new questions.
A bandage appeared on his left hand, similar to one that was seen on his right hand at the Kremlin last week. In the video, Lukashenko speaks to the officers in an unusually hoarse and weak voice, sometimes pausing between words.
The man who has ruled Belarus with an iron fist for nearly three decades has been a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, allowing the Kremlin to use his country as a staging ground for its war in neighboring Ukraine, although he has stopped short of committing his troops to the conflict.
Lukashenko is the only foreign leader to regularly meet with Putin since the invasion began in February 2022, meeting 14 times.
Their last get-together was at the May 9 parade in Moscow. He sat near Putin amid elderly veterans with medals as well as other leaders of neighboring states in the Kremlin's effort to show that Russia was not completely isolated amid the war in Ukraine.
On photos and video from Moscow, though, Lukashenko looked tired. After the parade, he was absent from a short walk by the leaders of about 300 meters (yards) from Red Square to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where they laid flowers. Media reports said Lukashenko rode to the memorial on an electric cart.
He then skipped a Putin-hosted breakfast and flew home for the Victory Day ceremony in Minsk, although he failed to make a speech for the first time in years, delegating it to his defense minister.
Since then, he has canceled a government meeting on corruption and then, for the first time in years, failed to show at an important state holiday — Sunday's celebration of Flag Day. Prime Minister Roman Golovchenko read an address on his behalf.
Then came Monday's state news report on his appearance at the central command post of the Belarusian air force, although there was no explanation of his recent absences or report on his health.
At the command post, officers report to him that Belarus' air defenses have been on high alert since Saturday, when military aircraft went down in Russia. Lukashenko said the aircraft were “downed,” but didn’t elaborate.
Government officials have not commented on the unusual absence of Lukashenko, who typically appears at events and meetings almost daily, giving long, flamboyant speeches. The barrel-chested leader is often shown playing ice hockey or working in his vegetable garden.
Pavel Latushka, a former government official turned opposition activist, cited unidentified government sources as saying Lukashenko is suffering from a viral infection with a complication of myocarditis — an inflammation of the heart muscle.
Another report by the Belarusian independent news outlet Euroradio said Lukashenko was taken to an elite clinic in Minsk, with no details on his condition.
Neither of those reports could be independently verified.
Russian lawmaker Konstantin Zatulin told Russian media Sunday that Lukashenko “has simply fallen ill.”
“There is nothing supernatural there, it's not COVID-19. The man has simply fallen ill," Zatulin was quoted by news outlets as saying. “Despite the fact that the man fell ill, he considered it his duty to come to Moscow (on May 9), and that same evening he was holding events in Minsk. He probably needs some rest, and that's it,” Zatulin said.
Asked Monday about Lukashenko's health before the Belta news agency's dispatch, spokesman Dmitry Peskov urged reporters to “focus on official reports.”
“There has been no official reports from Minsk. And we believe that it's very important to focus on official information,” Peskov said.
Lukashenko, a former collective farm director, has led Belarus since 1994, stifling any dissent with brutal repressions. The country's Soviet-style economy for decades has relied heavily on cheap Russian energy and loans Moscow generously granted multiple times.
In August 2020, after he won a sixth consecutive term in an election that was widely denounced as rigged, there were months of unprecedented protests in the country. The government responded with a violent crackdown, arresting over 35,000 people, with thousands beaten while in custody. Scores of independent media organizations and rights groups have been shut down, activists fled the country, and Lukashenko's government was hit with crippling sanctions by the U.S. and the European Union.
Putin supported Lukashenko in suppressing the demonstrations, and in return, the Belarusian leader threw his weight behind Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.
Opposition figures and analysts warn that a serious illness involving Lukashenko could destabilize Belarus.
Exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya warned that “in countries where dictatorship reigns, the entire system starts to collapse when a leader disappears.”
“There are many different rumors about the health of dictator Lukashenko, and for us it means only one thing — we need to be well-prepared for any scenario,” Tsikhanouskaya told The Associated Press in written comments Monday.
Independent political analyst Valery Karbalevich said that “hiding information about the health of the leader doesn't calm the situation down. It instead kicks off an avalanche of rumors and diagnoses — from poisoning to cancer.”
“Lukashneko is getting old and starts to get sick, and for a personalist regime, it becomes a serious factor for destabilizing the entire system, which begins to shudder and crumble,” Karbalevich said.