Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko skipped a key state celebration, sparking speculation that the leader is seriously ill as he has been missing from the public eye since last week.
The 68-year-old leader, who normally marks the annual celebration of National Flag, Emblem and Anthem Day by addressing the public, remained absent from Sunday’s event, with his prime minister reading a message on his behalf.
The autocratic leader of Belarus was last seen in public on May 9, during Victory Day celebrations in Moscow.
This was the first time that Lukashenko did not speak at the event in Minsk marking the anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory over Germany in World War II.
According to the state news agency BelTA, Prime Minister Roman Golovchenko read a message from Lukashenko during the annual ceremony in which young people pledge allegiance to the flag of the former Soviet state.
He did not give any reason for the president’s absence and Lukashenko’s office declined to comment.
Confirming the information about Mr. Lukashenko’s illness, a senior leader of the Russian parliament told a media outlet that he was sick, but did not have covid.
Konstantin Zatulin, a senior member of the Duma lower house of parliament, told the Russian online publication Podyom that “[Lukashenko] he’s just gotten sick… and probably needs to rest.”
Belarusian opposition outlet Euroradio said Lukashenko was transferred to a presidential medical center in Minsk on Saturday night. The information, however, is yet to be confirmed.
The president, who is a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, traveled to Moscow on May 9 for the Victory Day parade, where he looked visibly tired and wore a bandage on his hand, according to a report.
He left quickly after the parade, skipping lunch with Putin before laying flowers in the capital Minsk upon his arrival.
Lukashenko is often called Europe’s last dictator and has ruled Belarus since 1994.
The leader is known to suppress dissenting voices by using force to quell protests, while courts have shut down dissident media outlets and imposed lengthy jail terms on opponents. Activists have fled the country in droves.
Unconfirmed reports and rumors claim that Lukashenko could suffer paralysis without back surgery in the West, where he is unable to travel due to Western sanctions.
In 2020, several countries, including the United Kingdom and the European Union, imposed sanctions on the leader over accusations of vote rigging in the presidential election and the subsequent crackdown on protests.
Massive anti-government protests erupted after he proclaimed himself the landslide winner of a presidential election that the opposition denounced as rigged. The Central Election Commission declared that Lukashenko had won more than 81 percent of the vote.
Police and agents of the Belarusian KGB security service arrested and brutally beat thousands of protesters, while Lukashenko managed to stay in power with Russian backing.