The Lonely Life of the Visiting Dictator
How will Belarus' president spend his time in New York?
The United Nations' 60th anniversary celebration this week is supposed to be about heads of state setting aside their differences in the cause of peace and international brotherhood.
Unless you're Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, and the country you rule like a KGB chief has been labeled an "outpost of tyranny" by the Bush administration and one of your best friends is sitting in an American military prison awaiting trial for being the much-maligned Butcher of Baghdad.
Then your 18-hour stay in New York is lame. Then you won't be holding bilateral meetings with the likes of Tony Blair or Dominique de Villepin (subbing for the recuperating Jacques Chirac) or mingling at any closed-door cocktail parties hosted by Upper East Side cognoscenti.
If you're Alexander Lukashenko and you're the president of a poor, irradiated country and even the thugs call you a thug, with your secret secret police and your thick, peasant patois, then you spend your one night in New York City in your suite at the Waldorf Towers.
"Certainly, we have some sort of tensions on a political level, but nevertheless we are open to fruitful dialogue for the benefits of the two countries," Aleg Ivanou, deputy permanent representative at the Belarusian mission to the United Nations, said of Lukashenko's visit to the United States.
Ivanou noted that "the main reason for the visit of Mr. Lukashenko to the United States is the visit to the U.N. headquarters. This is not a fully depoliticized organization, but it is the largest international forum."
Sounding a bit like a Soviet-era press officer, Ivanou added: "Belarus is among the first 45 regional states that signed the U.N. charter, and it would be rather strange if the head of the country, one of the founders of the organization, will not participate in such an event." This is true—technically. But only because Joseph Stalin allowed Belarus, then a Soviet Socialist Republic, to act as an independent signatory—and only because it served the interest of the Kremlin (which, only a few years earlier, had ordered the execution of the great bulk of Belarusian nationalists, intellectuals, and sundry troublemakers).
So what will President Lukashenko do—or not do—while he's in the city?
First, he'll skip all the niceties, starting with the group photo shoot that was scheduled, according to the U.N. Web site, for 2:30 on Wednesday afternoon. (Lukashenko's Boeing didn't land at JFK until early evening.)
And he won't visit any local sights, not even the Guggenheim, with its new Chagall exhibit. (Chagall being a native of Vitebsk, about a two-hour drive northeast of Minsk, the artist has become something of a national, albeit Jewish, treasure in a country devoid of gothic cathedrals, sprawling museums, Roman ruins, and other things that draw foreigners to European countries.) "The program of our president is a very pragmatic and practical one," Ivanou said Wednesday, shortly before Lukashenko landed. "Only practical meetings. No culture program or sightseeing this evening. It's for sure."
Peter Savodnik is an editor at the Moscow Times and is working on a book on sex, death, and politics in Russia.
Photograph of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko by Sergey Supinski/Agence France-Presse.