In the past few weeks, Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko has fired the chief of his air force and border guard patrol, shut down the Swedish embassy in the country and kicked out the ambassador, and just last week fired his long-serving foreign minister. The reason? Teddy bears.
In early July, Tomas Mazetti, a marketing executive with the Swedish firm Studio Total, took off in a single-engine propeller plane from an airfield in Lithuania, donned a furry bear mask and headed for Belarus. When his plane was inside the country, known as the last dictatorship in Europe, he released his cargo – several hundred teddy bears, carrying slogans calling for democracy and increased freedom of expression.
After nearly 90 minutes inside Belarusian airspace, he turned and headed back towards Lithuania, untouched by the country’s air defences.
Initially, the Belarus authorities denied it had ever happened. But when photographs started appearing on the internet, all hell broke loose. “Was this the stupidity of specific actors or systemic mistakes in the defence of the airspace?” Lukashenko raged at a meeting of his security chiefs, demanding to know why the plane had not been shot down.
Perhaps the most disturbing victims of the teddy bear raid, however, are not the Swedish diplomats or Belarusian officials, but two locals who on the surface appear to have had very little to do with the Swedish stunt.
Anton Suryapin, an ambitious 20-year-old photographer who had started his own news agency, was sent photographs of the teddy bears landing near a Belarusian village. He published the photos on his website, realising it was a journalistic coup.
There was lots of discussion online about the pictures, but nothing more happened for more than a week. Then on July 13, the police and KGB – as security services are still known in the country – arrived at his apartment.
They searched the place for incriminating evidence that Suryapin had been personally involved in the drop, and whisked him off to the infamous Amerikanka Prison, where he spent the next month.
He was charged with “illegal crossing of the state boundary” under article 371 of the Belarus criminal code.
Suryapin was released from jail two weeks ago. “I’m a quiet, peaceful person. I’m not political, I just want to do independent journalism, as much as that is possible in Belarus.”
That is now even harder than it was. His camera, laptop and cellphone are still with the KGB, and he has been banned from leaving the small town of Slutsk, where his parents live. Even if he raises funds for a new camera, he will not be able to do his job, as he cannot travel to Minsk, the capital.
Suryapin says he knew when he posted the photographs that it would be a scandal, but did not imagine he could be arrested merely for doing his job.
“I had the first pictures, and it was my duty as a journalist to publish them. I had no contact with these Swedes or with any other Swedes. Ever.”
Estate agent Sergei Basharimov was jailed for renting an apartment in Minsk to Studio Total. Mazetti says he did not tell either of the arrested men, or any other Belarusians, about his plans. While both men have now been released, they could still be jailed for up to seven years.
The KGB has demanded that Mazetti and his colleagues at Studio Total appear in Minsk for questioning, a request that Mazetti and his partners met with ridicule in an open letter that called Lukashenko an “armed clown”.
Lukashenko has ruled Belarus since 1994, and is banned from travelling to the EU under sanctions against him and his inner circle.
In 2010 he won presidential elections that Western observers said were rigged. Riot police dispersed tens of thousands of protesters and jailed most of those who stood against him.
“The EU has condemned and pressured Lukashenko for 20 years and nothing has really happened,” Mazetti said.
“We work with brands to help get the media talking about them, so we decided to use our experience on something we care about, to get people thinking about Belarus.”
While some in the Belarusian opposition think it was a good way to show up the absurdity of Lukashenko’s regime, not everyone was impressed with the stunt.
“They crossed the state boundary from a Nato state – can you imagine if something similar had happened over US territory?” said Alexander Feduta, a political analyst who spent part of last year in jail for backing a rival candidate of Lukashenko in 2010.
“It’s a phenomenal example of idiocy, and they are lucky they didn’t get shot down and killed.”
Mazetti was fortunate. In 1995, Belarusian air defences had no qualms about shooting down and killing two Americans who had unwittingly drifted into the country’s airspace in a hot-air balloon.
Mazetti feels the Belarusian leader’s response shows he is rattled, and it helps to show the regime’s absurdity to the country’s citizens.
“Lukashenko is starting to behave irrationally. When a dictator starts doing this, as we’ve seen this year in lots of other countries across the world, the only way is downhill. It’s only a matter of time.”