For 21 years, Alexander Lukashenko has ruled Belarus with an iron fist, jailing opponents, crushing opposition marches, and, many believe, sanctioning the murder of rivals.

Now, he appears to be laying plans to turn his authoritarian regime into a North-Korean style dynasty, with his 11-year-old son Nikolai as his chosen heir.

As he cast his ballot in Belarus's presidential elections yesterday (Sunday), the man known as Europe's last dictator was accompanied not by his estranged wife, or even one of his rumoured mistresses, but a small blond boy in blue suit.

The grooming of "Kolya," as he is popularly known, began in 2008, when the four-year-old child appeared alongside his father in military uniform to review an annual Independence Day parade in Minsk.

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Since then he has emerged as Belarus's president-in-waiting, joining his father on diplomatic missions where foreign leaders have been obliged to treat the young boy as an official guest.

By the age of seven, he had met Pope Benedict XVI, Venezuela's former president, Hugo Chavez, and the president of Russia at the time, Dmitry Medvedev, who gave him a golden pistol.

He has presided over military parades in a replica of his father's uniform, and been photographed at military exercises with the golden sidearm in the belt of his camouflage uniform. When Kolya high-fived Hugo Chavez in 2012, his suit jacket slipped back to reveal a holstered pistol on his belt.

Mr Lukashenko has not disclosed the identity of Nikolai's mother, but he is believed to be the son of Irina Abelskaya, his former personal doctor and at least his second mistress since becoming president. Mr Lukashenko also has two adult sons by his estranged wife. It is a promotion of dynastic heritage that has drawn a mixture of disgust and pity from the opposition. "When I see this young kid being used to humiliate foreign leaders, I just feel sorry for him," said Andrei Sannikov, a former opposition presidential candidate now living in exile. "I don't understand why they put up with it."

The constitution sets 35 as the minimum age for a president, meaning Mr Lukashenko would have to serve another 25 years to ensure succession.

"Dynastic succession is a long-term possibility. But Kolya is very young, and that is deliberate: it sends the message; 'I may be grooming my son for power, but you won't be rid of me any time soon," said Andrew Wilson, of the European Council for Foreign Relations.

Last week, Nikolai accompanied his father to represent Belarus at the United Nations General Assembly. The Belorussian government released a photograph of him alongside Barack and Michelle Obama during that trip.

Mr Lukashenko was on course for a landslide win in yesterday's presidential election with exit polls suggesting he won more than 80 per cent of the vote. This was despite a boycott by the opposition supported by Nobel prize winning author Svetlana Alexeivich.

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"This time it's a really shameless fraud," said Mr Sannikov, who ran as an opposition candidate in 2010, but was beaten up and jailed for two years after the election. Two candidates, Sergei Gaidukevich of the Liberal Democratic Party and Nikolai Ulakhovich, of the Belarussian Patriotic Party, have openly supported Mr Lukashenko and effectively act as spoiler candidates.

Tatsiana Karatkevich, a member of the "speak truth" movement, has positioned herself as a moderate face of the opposition, prepared to work with elements within the regime for reform. Many veteran opposition leaders, including Mr Sannikov, have criticised that position as effective collaboration.

European foreign ministers have said they will suspend sanctions against Belarus today, provided the vote passed without incident. The offer appears to be partly a reward for releasing six political prisoners in August, as well as Mr Lukashenko's role in hosting peace talks between Russia and Ukraine

Mr Sannikov called the decision "disappointing". He put it down to business interests lobbying for access, and Minsk using the confrontation between Russia and the West over Ukraine to overcome international isolation.

In April, Mr Lukashenko joked that he was "not Europe's last dictator any more". "There are dictators a bit worse than me, no? I'm the lesser evil already," he said in an interview, in an apparent reference to Vladimir Putin.

He recently rejected Russian demands to build an airbase in Belarus, a move that will relieve Western security officials worried about the Kremlin's military plans in Eastern Europe.

"Mr Lukashenko has long used these pendulum tactics. One day he is the best friend of Putin, the next day he is the best friend of Brussels. But at the end of the day it comes down to him needing money," said Mr Sannikov.

Prof Wilson added: "It's a matter of real politik, not human rights. The fact is the region is a god-awful mess and suddenly Belarus's strategic position is much more important."