On the 4th July,a small Swedish plane set-off from southern Lithuania on a very special, if very unfamiliar mission to Minsk. The two pilots wore fuzzy bear masks and carried a cargo as equally as unusual and exceptional as their mission: 879 teddy-bears decked out in parachutes with slogans supporting human rights and freedom of speech.
The teddy-bear masked pilots were Swedes Tomas Mazetti and Hannah Frey, owners of the PR firm Studio Total in Malmö, southern Sweden. Per Cromwell, Mazetti’s cousin, followed the pair in a get-away car, in case they had to land and escape to a friendly embassy. In the end, the plane flew into Belarus, dropped its cargo, and flew out again, totally undisturbed.
Minsk initially pretended that the teddy-bear drop did not happen. President Lukashenko, commonly known as “Europe’s last dictator”, and not exactly renowned for his sense of humour was not happy. He hit back last week,sacking the nation’s air defence chief and the head of the Border Guards service; also publicly reprimanding several other top security officials. Mr Lukashenko even went as far as to expel Sweden’s ambassador, on the charges of meeting opposition groups and “destroying” relations between Stockholm and Minsk.
The two Swedes and their furry freedom fighters have made a complete mockery of the joint air defence system that Belarus has formed with Russia. Mr Lukashenko had previously boasted about the capabilities of the system, declaring it as a reliable shield against purported threats from NATO. Apparently, it wasn’t only NATO that Mr Lukashenko and his generals should have been concerned about – but a foe of a far fluffier and cuddlier disposition.
Part of Lukashenko’s anger is pure embarrassment: the incident almost certainly led to an uncomfortable conversation with the Kremlin, Belorussia’s patron, who may now insist on putting a Russian general in control of the leaky defence system.
The irony is probably lost on MrLukashenko that in making such public dismissals and rebukes, he has played his own part in Studio Total’s ultimate PR goal: to embarrass the Belarusian military, a pillar of Lukashenko’s power and authority.
Two Belarusians, however,are known to have been arrested in connection with the incident. One, Sergei Basharimov, a real estate agent, who rented an apartment to Mr Cromwell for his brief stay in Minsk. The other, Anton Suryapin (a blogger and journalism student) posted photos of the teddy-bears on his blog.
Frey and Mazetti were inspired by Belorussia’s own home-grown protest movement. In February, stuffed dogs, bears and rabbits gathered in central Minsk for a plush-toy protest against the regime. Frey and Mazetti wanted to show solidarity:”Our campaign was a campaign in support of that. An airlift in support of the teddy-bears, from teddy-bears around the world”. The Swedes at Studio Total have certainly demonstrated their own panache and proficiency in PR.
Teddy-bears aside,the European Union, has to date, been unable to find a successful policy approach towards a country that has successfully managed to isolate itself from the transformative forces in Eastern Europe of thepost-Soviet era. It didn’t feature at all in the technocratic European Neighbourhood Policy, launched in 2005.Its 2008 bolt-on successor, the Eastern Partnership, has failed to entice Belarus into making even modest political reforms. Stifling descent and an independent media, Lukashenko has ruled Belarus with an iron fist since 1994.
Instead of the intended “more for more” imagined by dangling the carrot of access to the EU’s single market in exchange for reforms, “nothing for nothing” has been the modus operandi. Belarus is the only country in the region that still trades more with Russia than the European Union and unlike the rest of Europe even has the death penalty.
Russia simply has more to offer the governing elites of the Lukashenko regime: economic assistance, labour market access, a new customs union, security guarantees and an ideology of “sovereign democracy”. This is a combination that the EU will be unable and unwilling to match for as long as Mr Lukashenko and his ilk maintain the reins of power.
Enigmatic to its western neighbours, Belarus has been largely ignored. This is convenient for Mr Lukashenko and his bid to maintain the status quo. In such a context, Studio Total’s brave awareness-raising stunt is all the more commendable.