In the age of Internet and headline information about the private lives of national and international leaders, it is heartening to see that the independent states of the former USSR have not fallen behind. In fact in many ways Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus in particular are setting new trends, albeit in rather different ways.
Vladimir Putin has stepped down as president of Russia but he has not departed from the stage. He has not only agreed to become Prime Minister, but he has also accepted the leadership of the country’s largest political party, United Russia, even though he is not actually a member of it. He also declared last Aptil in a recent private conversation with President George W. Bush that Ukraine, Russia’s closest neighbor and trading partner, is not really a country, which provoked an official protest from Kyiv.
More interestingly, Putin for some time has colluded with the Russian media to establish himself as the leading sex symbol. He has been photographed frequently in military regalia as well as bare-chested and on horseback while on vacation in Tuva region of Siberia last year, and sporting a Marlborough hat. Clearly, however, he was taken aback by the antics of French president Nicholas Sarkozy, who suffered a painful divorce but rebounded to marry model Carla Bruni.
Last spring the newspaper Moskovski Korrespondent issued a story that Putin is about to divorce his wife of twenty-five years Lyudmila to marry Alina Kabayeva, a rhythmic gymnast who has twice won the world title, and was born the same year that the Putins wed. Kabaeva is half-Tatar and has been a member of the Russian Duma for United Russia since last year. Her displays as a gymnast include a remarkable routine with a ball that would leave David Beckham drooling.
When asked about the rumors, Putin denied them with a smile, remarking that Russian women are the most beautiful in the world and only Italian women bear comparison–his comments were made in the presence of another lothario, newly reelected Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, aged 71. Subsequently the owner of Moskovski Korrespondent, Aleksandr Lebedev, a billionaire former KGB agent–no work of fiction could concoct better descriptions–disbanded his newspaper and its editor resigned in protest. The deputy editor, however, has stood by his story.
Switch to Minsk, Belarus, where the US-styled “last dictator of Europe” Alyaksandr Lukashenka, 53, has been in power for the past 14 years. Lukashenka’s wife has never been seen in the capital and has a job as a dairy maid in his native province in the east of the country. However, Lukashenka has another family–the Belarusian people–who refer to him as “Bat’ka” or Little Father. The Little Father, it transpires, has a little son, a 4-year old conceived by his mistress who–if rumors are to be taken at face value–is being groomed as the great man’s successor.
A March issue of the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda v Belorussii–literally it means ‘young Communist truth in Belarusian land’ but it neither advocates Communism nor espouses the truth–counters the adulation for Russia’s Putin by providing a large color portrait of Russian and Belarusian leaders. The headline reads “Lukashenka is 10 years older and 20 cms taller than [new Russian president Dmitry] Medvedev” and alongside each figure is listed his height: Medvedev, 168 cms, Lukashenka (towering) 188 cms, Putin 170 cms, and Belarusian Prime Minister Sidorsky 180 cms. Belarus may not have the ideal leader therefore, but at least he is bigger than anyone else.
Lukashenka, like Putin, is a devotee of sport and captains a hockey team that remains unbeaten in all competitions. During the games the president wears the number 1 shirt and no one to date has ever dared check him. Other players set up goals for him which he invariably misses. Such is his devotion to the game that he has had hockey rinks constructed in every venue in the country that he might visit. Last year he won a cycling competition, his hulking 250 lb frame huddled over the handlebars, because no competitor–they were all massed behind the frontrunner–dared overtake him.
Ukraine’s president Viktor Yushchenko might once have been a rival of Putin as a sex symbol but he was badly disfigured when his rivals tried to poison him in the 2004 presidential election campaign. He is now taking a back seat to his Prime Minister, Yuliya Tymoshenko, 47, aka the princess of Ukraine. The offspring (possibly, since no one actually knows he truth) of a Russian mother and Armenian father, she has used her onetime husband’s name to good effect, adopting Ukrainian braids as her trademark.
Tymoshenko’s personal website contains over 6,300 photographs of herself in various poses. It also contains perhaps the most self-serving biography of any modern political leader, about her constant battles against corruption and how more or less single-handedly she took on the oligarchs, as well as leading the Orange Revolution against the discredited regime of former president Leonid Kuchma. In the process she somehow became a billionaire. The sale of Tymoshenko’s handbags alone could pay off Ukraine’s national debt.
Whatever one may say about Princess Yuliya, she can at least hold her eggs. During a 2004 election campaign speech, an egg splattered on her designer dress without her turning a hair. Not so former Prime Minister and Regions Party leader Viktor Yanukovych, the loutish former governor of Donetsk with a criminal record for manslaughter. Stepping off his campaign bus in Ivano-Frankivsk he keeled over as if he had been shot and was rushed to hospital. Subsequently a raw egg was revealed to have been the weapon. Not surprisingly he has never been associated with a rhythmic gymnast.
By comparison, Western leaders Bush, Harper, Brown, and co seem rather dull.
(An earlier version of this article was published in the EDMONTON JOURNAL)