Dictatorship is our brand Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko owes his tenuous grasp on reality largely to his press secretary, Natalya Eismont. Here’s how she gained such influence.
In the six years since she was hired as the Belarusian president’s press secretary, Natalya Eismont has become one of his closest associates. Many of Alexander Lukashenko’s adversaries — and more than a few former supporters — say Eismont bears much of the blame for the president’s current “detachment from reality.” Meduza special correspondent Maxim Solopov reviewed the professional milestones that led Eismont to her current prominence amid the largest protests in the nation’s history.
The world needs more dictatorships
The now infamous footage of Alexander Lukashenko parading through downtown Minsk and carrying an automatic weapon, accompanied by his son, Nikolai, in a special forces uniform, was first published on the Telegram channel Pul Pervogo (“First’s [Press] Pool”). Journalists around the world now rely on this outlet as their main source of information about Lukashenko’s views and actions in the midst of unprecedented political unrest. Every Belarusian reporter who spoke to Meduza expressed certainty that the president’s press secretary, 36-year-old Natalya Eismont, is personally responsible for managing the content shared on Pul Pervogo.
“Dictatorship is now our brand,” Eismont said of her approach to Lukashenko’s image in the one and only extensive interview she’s granted as the president’s spokesperson. In that conversation with Belarusian state television, she offered a sincere defense of authoritarianism: “I don’t know if you’ll agree with me here, but today, in 2019, the word ‘dictatorship’ is gaining a certain positive connotation. We see what’s happening around us. We see the chaos and sometimes the disorder. And, you know maybe I’m about to say something paradoxical or surprising, but sometimes it seems to me that someday soon there may be a demand for dictatorship in the world. Because when we think about dictatorship today, we see discipline and an absolutely normal, quiet life, first and foremost.”
Being called an authoritarian clearly doesn’t bother Lukashenko. During a meeting with U.S. State Secretary Mike Pompeo this February, he joked that Belarusian dictatorship “differs in that everyone rests on the weekends but the president works.” When a major accident disrupted Minsk’s water supply in June, Lukashenko quipped: “Dictatorship is bad, but it’s good when we solve an extreme problem overnight.”
Such remarks about authoritarianism are part of the conscious publicity strategy instituted by Natalya Eismont, who acknowledges that anything she says and does is “examined under a microscope.”
A transmitter of the president’s will
It’s easy to overlook in videos of Alexander Lukashenko marching through the capital, armed and showering Interior Ministry troops in thanks, but the Belarusian president doesn’t really enjoy public relations work, claims his press secretary. Luckily for her, she says, Lukashenko is the kind of leader who doesn’t really need staged publicity. “Few can imagine,” Eismont says, “how many ideas come directly from the president.” Lukashenko can handle himself, apparently.
Belarusian political analyst Artyom Shraibman told Meduza that this is essentially true: Lukashenko doesn’t need a press secretary “in the traditional sense.” The president has made a habit not just of emphasizing his openness but also his awareness about the work and even the private lives of the journalists reporting on his administration. For example, a documentary film released last month by the state-run National State TV and Radio Company features numerous scenes where Lukashenko addresses reporters during official events and congratulates them on their recent weddings and childbirths.
In fact, Alexander Lukashenko went for more than a decade without a formal spokesperson. Eismont’s predecessor, Natalia Petkevich, left the position in 2003 to become the president’s deputy chief of staff and then his first deputy in charge of “state ideology” and the media. For 11 years, Lukashenko had no press secretary at all. His office has always operated a press service, of course, but it mostly handles technical and logistical tasks. The president meets with these people two or three times a year, a source familiar with the agency told Meduza.
Lukashenko didn’t need another press secretary until 2014 when Petkevich finally quit the government altogether and married Belarus’s official UN representative (which allowed her to travel to New York City, despite sanctions imposed by the United States in 2006 in response to the Lukashenko regime’s democratic-norm violations).
“He needed someone who would relay his wishes to the media — a kind of transmitter,” says Meduza’s source. Various men had managed the president’s press service over the years, but Lukashenko needed someone he could work with directly and constantly. And he reportedly wanted a woman. “He doesn’t trust men very much,” Meduza’s source says.
You have the right to kiss the bride
It was nevertheless a surprise when Lukashenko hired a TV news anchor to serve as his next spokeswoman. Belarusians already knew her by her pseudonym, Natalya Kirsanova, and the nation’s gossip columns offered years of reports about her career in television.
In 2006, after studying drama at the Belarusian State Academy of Arts and working at Minsk’s Musical Theater, Natalya started interning at the National State TV and Radio Company, where she met her future husband, Ivan Eismont, a former Grodno police captain who’d recently joined the TV industry after his sister, sports journalist Anna Eismont, invited him to a casting call for presenters. Eventually, Natalya was given her own show — a Belarusian-language program about local affairs in Minsk. In order to speak fluent Belarusian for the program, she had to take special lessons the master the language.
In 2010, Ivan Eismont proposed to Natalya, and the two television celebrities were married in a ceremony that was modest by the standards of Russia’s entertainment world. In a nod to the groom’s past profession, the officiate dressed as an officer and read out a “police report,” ordering the couple the cohabitate and exchange rings.
“I always knock before I walk in on my husband. He’s my boss now!” Natalya Eismont told Komsomolskaya Pravda in April 2014, not long before she took the job as Lukashenko’s spokeswoman. By then, Ivan Eismont had moved up in the world: he’d been promoted to deputy director of the National State TV and Radio Company and the president himself had even pinned a Francysk Skaryna Medal on him, in recognition of his contributions to Belarusian cultural and intellectual heritage. Before Natalya joined the Lukashenko administration, she and her husband also co-hosted a weekly news broadcast on state television.
Colleagues who worked with both TV anchors told Meduza that Natalya’s star shined brighter of the two, but it remains unclear exactly why she was selected for a role so close to the president.
One source speculates that Eismont may owe her appointment in part to Darya Shmanai, the former beauty queen who was first spotted in Lukashenko’s entourage in early 2014. After competing in pageants, Shmanai became a protocol officer and assistant in the presidential administration, leading to rumors about a romantic relationship with Lukashenko. After becoming press secretary, Eismont started appearing in friendly selfies with Shmanai.
Eismont says the job offer came as a surprise and the responsibility scared her. “There’s no time to be afraid, now get to work,” Lukashenko teased her, she says.
With his wife as the president’s spokeswoman, Ivan Eismont continued to rise professionally, as well. First, he became the director of the National State TV and Radio Company, then he was hired as the deputy chairman of its parent company, Belteleradio, and later he became Belteleradio’s director.
“They love you. Everything’s fine.”
As press secretary, Natalya Eismont was entrusted not just with coordinating the state media and managing Lukashenko’s image but also with preparing news digests and talking points for the president. This latter content is drafted in cooperation with a closed group of experts and filtered through Lukashenko’s administration, Eismont has explained in interviews, adding that the president specifies the rhetoric used. “Our job is to approximate this style,” she says.
Since her appointment as Lukashenko’s spokeswoman, Eismont has accompanied the president constantly at all major events, joining in him in various sporting and harvesting activities. “If you’d told me five years ago that I’d now be able to chop wood, mow grass, ski, and rollerskate, I probably wouldn’t have believed you, to put it gently,” Eismont said in December 2018.
“At first, [Natalya Eismont] was shy or at least she pretended to be, but pretty quickly she acclimated and became a genuine member of the presidential family,” a source familiar with Lukashenko’s entourage told Meduza. “Media heads, ministers, and really all state officials carried out her orders unquestioningly. Nobody dared to ask if the instructions were hers or Lukashenko’s. All her orders were executed as though they were his own. A lot of directors don’t like her for that reason.”
A source familiar with Eismont’s work told Meduza that she believes her primary role as press secretary is to keep Alexander Lukashenko happy. “They’ve created an illusion for the president. ‘People love you, everything’s fine,’ they tell him. To hell with reality,” says Meduza’s source. Lukashenko still gets briefings from the Belarusian intelligence community, but only Eismont wields everyday influence. She’s reportedly had help from Natalya Kochanova, the chairperson of the Belarusian Parliament’s upper house and the president’s former chief of staff. “Lukashenko for his part hasn’t really resisted being torn away from reality,” says Meduza’s source. “His political instincts have only occasionally forced him to take the right steps. Mostly, he’s always moving in the other direction as his people.”
Another source familiar with the president’s press secretary says Eismont could have prevented the state media from disseminating some of Lukashenko’s recent statements that cost him many core supporters (such as particularly insensitive remarks about victims of the coronavirus).
Political analyst Artyom Shraibman agrees that Eismont exerts serious influence over the narrative presented to the president, whether it’s in the press packages prepared for Lukashenko or other executive briefings.
A source close to the Belarusian opposition’s Coordination Council told Meduza that Eismont, Kochanova, and Darya Shmanai have deliberately built a “safe space” around the president to ensure his satisfaction and self-confidence. Drunk on his own supposed political genius and infallibility, Lukashenko embraced a form of “sultanism” that quickly demolished “utopian hopes of enlightened authoritarianism with a thriving I.T. industry, investments, and a multi-vector foreign policy,” says Meduza’s source, adding that the president’s “cynical sincerity” about the coronavirus pandemic (like referring to COVID-19 deaths as “fatties” and “old folks”) was the final straw for many Belarusians.
Eismont has something of a rivalry with Lukashenko’s son, Nikolai, which the president has acknowledged several times publicly. Last year, in an interview with the Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy, the Belarusian president described how his son criticizes Eismont’s work as press secretary. Two years earlier, Lukashenko called Eismont his son’s “greatest enemy,” explaining that Nikolai often dislikes the way he’s presented in the media.
Anton Rodnenkov, a member of Viktar Babaryka’s campaign staff who now serves as the opposition Coordination Council’s spokesman, told Meduza that Lukashenko’s public image has “seriously deteriorated” in recent years. “An experienced, capable politician and a man of the people has transformed into the owner of multiple residences, divorced from reality and proud to be a ‘dictator,’” Rodnenkov says, arguing that Natalya Eismont’s feeble efforts to modernize the president’s personal brand (like Lukashenko-themed stickers on the instant messaging app Telegram) have only backfired.
Even a strike by workers at Belteleradio in protest against police brutality wasn’t enough to compel Eismont to abandon her uncompromising criticism of the opposition. The network’s employees started walking off the job after a disappointing meeting with Eismont and Natalya Kochanova on August 15. Footage from that exchange indicates that only Kochanova even tried to persuade people to continue working.
Natalya Eismont did not respond to Meduza’s request for comment.
The most recent posts on Eismont’s Telegram channel contain footage of Lukashenko meeting with state officials, strongly worded comments from Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov about Moscow’s unreadiness to engage the Belarusian opposition’s Coordination Council officially, and images from pro-government rallies scored to dramatic music in a video titled “Belarus Never Wavers.” In the “promo,” Lukashenko says proudly that he plans to remain in power, whatever the cost.
Abridged translation by Kevin Rothrock