Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has skipped a key state ceremony, prompting speculation that the head of state is seriously ill as he has disappeared from public view since last week.
The 68-year-old leader, who normally addresses the public at the annual National Flag Day, Emblem and Anthem Day celebrations, was missing from the event on Sunday after his prime minister read 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 Mr Lukashenko did not speak at the event in Minsk marking the anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory over Germany in World War II.
Prime Minister Roman Golovchenko read a message from Mr Lukashenko during the annual ceremony at which young people pledge allegiance to the flag of the former Soviet state, according to state-run BelTA news agency.
No reason was given for the President’s absence and Mr Lukashenko’s office declined to comment.
A senior speaker of the Russian parliament confirmed information about Mr Lukashenko’s illness and told a media outlet that he was ill but not ill with Covid.
Konstantin Zatulin, a senior member of the lower house of the Duma, told Russian online publication Podyom: “[Lukashenko] just got sick… and probably needs a break.”
Opposition Belarusian broadcaster Euroradio said Mr Lukashenko was taken to a presidential medical center in Minsk on Saturday night. However, the information has yet to be confirmed.
The president, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, traveled to Moscow for the Victory Day Parade on May 9, where he looked visibly tired and had a bandage on his hand. according to a report.
He quickly left after the parade, skipping lunch with Mr Putin before laying flowers upon arrival in the capital, Minsk.
Often referred to as Europe’s last dictator, Mr Lukashenko has ruled Belarus since 1994.
The leader has been known to crack down on dissident voices by violently crushing protests, while courts have shut down dissident media and handed opponents lengthy jail terms. Activists have fled the country en masse.
According to unconfirmed reports and rumours, Lukashenko could become paralyzed without back surgery in the west, where he cannot travel due to sanctions imposed by western countries.
In 2020, several countries, including the United Kingdom and the European Union, imposed sanctions on the leader over allegations of vote-rigging in presidential elections and the subsequent crackdown on protests.
Mass anti-government protests erupted after he declared himself the overwhelming winner of presidential elections that the opposition denounced as rigged. The Central Election Commission said Mr Lukashenko won more than 81 percent of the vote.
Thousands of protesters were arrested and brutally beaten by police and Belarusian KGB security agents while Lukashenko, with Russian support, managed to remain in power.