Swedish 'teddy bear raid' makes the fur fly in Europe's last dictatorship


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The Independent Online

In the past few weeks, the 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-engined, 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, unmolested 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?" Mr 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 two locals who on the surface appear to have had very little to do with the 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.

On 13 July, the police and KGB, as the security services are still known in the country, whisked him off to the infamous Amerikanka prison, where he was to spend the next month.

Sergei Basharimov, an estate agent, was jailed for renting an apartment in Minsk to Studio Total. Mr Mazetti says he did not tell either of the arrested men, nor any other Belarusians, about his plans. While both men have now been released, they could still be jailed for up to seven years.

While some in Belarus think it was a good way to show up the absurdity of Mr 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?" asked Alexander Feduta, a political analyst. "It's a phenomenal example of idiocy, and they are lucky they didn't get shot down and killed."