There was no hesitation on Steven Seagal’s face as he took a raw, freshly peeled carrot from the hands of Belarusan President Alexander Lukashenko and bit into it with a satisfying chomp.
It was an act that the former action hero was ready for. In his visits to other strongmen of the former Soviet Union, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, the self-styled spiritual guru has assumed the role of both burly wingman and cross-cultural confidant. And, despite media controversy over his visits, he does not skip the photo-op.
“Eat to your health, it’s very good for you,” said Lukashenko, who rules over what former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice in 2005 famously called the “last remaining true dictatorship in the heart of Europe.”
“I’m not Europe’s last dictator anymore,” he said to a Bloomberg News reporter in 2015.
Seagal, still holding the carrot, looked thoughtful for a moment. Flanked by aides, officials and translators, the two discussed the year’s harvest. Soon, they had moved on to watermelons.
It was Seagal’s first visit to see Lukashenko, whom he had “long dreamed of meeting,” a Belarusan presidential spokeswoman said. Lukashenko was under European Union sanctions until February because of accusations of political repression and human rights abuses. He has ruled Belarus since 1994 and won his fifth term as president in October.
Seagal, who has family roots in Russia and Belarus, has lent a sympathetic ear to many of the region’s leaders, whose official relations with United States are considerably cooler. The actor is best known for his friendship with Putin, with whom he has appeared at martial arts contests and economic forums. Seagal spoke out in support of Putin following the 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and was a rare, high-profile American guest at the 2015 Victory Day military parade in Moscow’s Red Square.
His star power has also reached into politics. Surprising some lawmakers, Seagal aided a 2013 U.S. congressional delegation to Russia following the Boston Marathon bombing. He “opened up some doors for us so we could have some very high-level discussions,” Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., a member of the delegation and a friend of Seagal’s, told ABC News at the time.
“Suffice it to say that I know him well enough to know that he is one of the greatest world leaders if not the greatest world leader alive today,” Seagal said of Putin in a 2013 interview with the Russian television station RT. He said that he and Putin disagree on some issues but added that “the first time I went to his home, I walked in and saw a life-sized statue of Kano Jigoro, who is the founder of judo, so I was immediately taken and impressed and really wanting to get to know this man deeper and deeper.”
On Thursday, it was clear that Seagal and Lukashenko were still working out a rapport. The two met at a presidential residence near the capital city of Minsk, and were joined by Nikolai Lukashenko, the president’s youngest son, who travels with his father on official visits and is seen as the potential successor when his father chooses to step down.
It was, in many ways, a traditional day at the dacha, or country house, filled with scenic views and light conversation.
“From my point of view, this is the best time of the year. I don’t love heat. I’m a winter guy. This kind of cold weather is the best,” Lukashenko said from a bench overlooking a serene lake.
“It’s very relaxing.” Seagal replied. Later, the two sat down for a dinner of beet soup, salo and other homemade delicacies. The two did not discuss politics, at least in public remarks.
The trip lacked some of the panache of Seagal’s previous visits to the region. During a 2013 visit to Kadyrov’s Chechnya, Seagal was thrust into a circle of dancers performing a traditional Lezginka. Unfazed, the actor executed an interpretation of the traditional Caucasian dance, throwing elbows and gyrating as a Chechen dancer in a flowing green-and-gold gown glided smoothly beside him.
Kadyrov has been accused of human rights abuses in Chechnya, a republic located in the Russia’s North Caucasus region. Several Hollywood celebrities who flew to Grozny for the leader’s 35th birthday in 2011, including Hilary Swank and Jean-Claude Van Damme, as well as the violinist Vanessa Mae, later apologized.
Seagal, asked about the criticism of the 2013 visit during the RT interview, pushed back.
“Every single president I know, and I know many, there are rumors about all of them,” he said, noting “criminal allegations” against President Obama. “Is Ramzan Kadyrov a war criminal? Is he really? If he is show me something that rises above wild conjecture and speculation.”