This week Belarus asked the Swedish diplomatic mission to leave the country and recalled its own embassy from Stockholm. What sparked this international incident? That would be teddy bears. Small, cuddly soft toys.
Alexander Lukashenko, Europe’s last dictator, was angered by a July incident which involved a small aircraft piloted by employees of a Swedish advertising firm entering Belarusian airspace before dropping dozens of teddy bears carrying free speech slogans.
In response Belarus this week expelled Swedish ambassador Stefan Eriksson, known for his open support for civil society in the country. And although President Lukashenko himself denied the connection between sending a Swedish diplomat and his colleagues back home with the “plush airborne landing”, commentators agree that the teddy bears were at least a pretext for getting rid of the only Belarusian-speaking EU ambassador.
A KGB statement on Tuesday, 7 August invited “the Swedish nationals who participated in organising and implementing of the illegal trespass of the state border to arrive to Minsk for investigative actions as suspects.” A separate statement offered assurance that the KGB would “guarantee observance of their rights in accordance with the existent legislation”.
In the meantime, the authorities have had to settle for imprisoning their own citizens over the incident. Anton Suryapin, a young journalist who posted photos of the teddy bears in his blog, and Siarhei Basharymau, a real estate agent the Swedish “pilots” contacted before their flight, are currently in a KGB prison, facing criminal charges for “aiding and abetting a crime” and “illegal trespass of the state border”.
On 8 August two Belarusian journalists, Irina Kozlik and Julia Darashkevich, were detained while taking a picture with a teddy bear in support of their detained colleague Anton Suriapin. The journalists spent a night in detention and were fined 3 million roubles (about GBP £230 pounds) each for holding “an unauthorised picket”. According to the police officers who gave evidence in court, “the picket” was identified by the fact the women “held a teddy bear, talked and were taking pictures”. This counts as a dangerous protest in Belarus.
The new “diplomatic war” has left Belarusian activists nervous.
“Each scandal like this throws Belarus and its society back for years and leaves our country an international outcast,” Ulad Vialichka, the chairman of the EuroBelarus International consortium said. “And everybody knows what happens to social outcasts — they are doomed. In our circumstances there is a real possibility of losing of the country’s sovereignty and a definitive slide under Russian influence.”
The Political and Security Committee of the EU met today to discuss the situation. Some expected the EU to withdraw all its ambassadors from Minsk. But Brussels just decided to convey a message about its unhappiness with developments in Belarus, and promised to review its sanctions against Belarus officials.
Andrei Aliaksandrau is Index on Censorship’s Belarus and OSCE Programme Officer