Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who intends to live up to the age of 90, boasts of never being ill; Vladimir Putin swims and hits the gym; the ‘happiness of the nation’ keeps Nursultan Nazarbayev up. Each authoritarian leader shows off their top form and excellent health, even if it is only part of truth.
A few days ago, there were reports about Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s suffering a stroke. Later, however, presidential spokeperson Natallya Eismant, flatly denied the information. Such rumours about a serious illness, or even agony condition of leaders appear ever and again; Putin, Lukashenka, and Nazarbayev have been killed or sent to a resuscitative unit at least several times through gossip, ‘leaks’ and media speculations.
But it is not just mass media’s fault. Each of the leaders is very secretive about their about his health. Officially, they are always in pristine condition and in the full of their health. Demonstrating their being in a good shape is like a patent for political popularity. Consequently, it is no wonder that the word travels fast when they go off the radar. What is more, if everything depends on the will of one person, his state of health is of high importance for the fate of a state.
The authorities have been classifying the information about the Belarusian leader’s health state since his political career started. In 1994, when Lukashenka became president, he disappeared for a while. According to a number of media outlets, he was undergoing treatment in Moscow. The Belarusian People’s Front demanded that the health records of the president be made public. Opposition activists suggested that Lukashenka had mental health problems. Since then, the topic has been constantly on everyone’s lips in Belarus.
Before the 2006 election, when the president dropped out of the public sight, rumours about his being in a clinic in Austria started to fly. Later, the information about allegedly poor health of the Belarusian president and his suffering from prostate cancer appeared in the Wikileaks documents.
In 2014, Lukashenka underwent a knee surgery, which was confirmed by his press service. According to the official version, he got injured in the course of intensive exercises. In fact, sport is an inseparable element of the image of the Belarusian president. From the very beginning of his rule, the world has been watching him skiing, playing hockey or running. He never gives up an opportunity to present his physical prowess.
However, the 64-year-old leader does have some complexes about his health. When in 2014 he opened a new clinic in Minsk, he stressed: “Those who say that it is my private clinic… I assure you I will continue to be treated as before [i.e. he has no need to spend time in hospitals – Belsat]”.
In 2011, at the press conference, Lukashenka denied further speculations about his health and said he was going to live 90 years. It was the Americans whom he blamed for spreading rumours that he was sick. He put down his good condition to his ‘jogging in shorts’ along Independence Avenue in summer and skiing in winter. He stressed that in addition to sport, healthy nutrition was vital.
“Eat moderately, preferably four times a day, long before your bedtime. And what is the most important is that one can eat a lot, but only if they have much physical work,” he told two years ago in an interview with the Russian news agency TASS.
There is no doubt that among the authoritarian leaders Alyaksandr Lukashenka is a precursor of promoting a sporting image and worthy successor to the Soviet secretaries when it comes to concealing the real state of health. And he does have worthy followers in the east.
In early February, when the election campaign was in its full swing, Vladimir Putin took a time out without any explanations. Meetings with voters and foreign delegations were canceled. He stopped appearing on air; TV station were broadcasting only recorded pieces. Curiously, but it was the Kremlin that added fuel to the controversy: presidential spokesperson Dmitry Peskov issued a statement that the president was feeling bad. Then, however, he had to make it clear that Putin had just caught a cold.
If taking the Kremlin standards into account, revealing this fact was a ‘revolutionary’ step. When Putin unexpectedly came out of the public eye before, the authorities remained silent and state-run media were very close-tongued. For example, when Putin canceled his official visit to Kazakhstan and dropped out of the public sight for 11 days, Peskov denied his being ill. On the contrary, he tried to assure Russians that the leader remained very strong saying that his handshake was very firm.
Indeed, in his pursuit of popularity, Putin has made a religion of his physical strength – not only in Russia. Bare-chested Putin’ fishing, or president’s riding a horse, swimming underwater, paragliding, playing hockey,judoing = such images are shown to the world especially before election campaigns in Russia.
“Of course, Putin is seeking the image of an athlete to distinguish himself from his predecessor, unhealth and dissipated Boris Yeltsin. But showing off his strength is also the foundation of its strategy, including in international politics,” says Alexander Baunov, an expert at the Carnegie Foundation in Moscow.
And certainly, the leader’s weaknesses are a taboo subject in Russia. If his official biography is anything to go by, Putin has been keeping a healthy and sporty lifestyle since he was a child. Only once he admitted that he indulged himself and drank a lot of beer during hiswork for the KGB in Dresden. This was confirmed by Mattias Warnig, currently a German banker, who was a STASI and in the 1980s. Warnig stressed that Putin could drink five or even seven beers a day. There are still photos of Putin in the Thor pub in Dresden. At that time, he put on weight.
Later, when Putin started his political career, he was often reported to be an abstainer, despite that fact that it is not true. Journalists who are well aware of the Kremlin affairs say that Putin drinks much red Tuscan wine.
“Information about the health of the leader is the most valuable, one can build political strategies and plan international politics on its basis, that is why they protect it,” Baunov stresses.
By the way, not only the Kremlin does so. There is little information about the health status of 78 year-old Nursultan Nazarbayev. According to unconfirmed data, he has had cancer treatment abroad. But officially, he feels well and only better with every passing day. Just like Lukashenka, he preaches that health depends on lifestyle. Nazarbayev boasts that he runs, plays tennis and goes skiing, he also travels areond the Kazakh prairies ‘in search of inspiration’.
But what improves his health the most is ‘the happiness of the nation’ he rules. Meanwhile, the reality is exactly the opposite. In countries where everything depends on one person, his or her health can affect the life of each citizen.
Michał Kacewicz/MS, belsat.eu