Fur flies in Belarus's teddy bear wars

Belarus's tyrannical leader is angry – and all because of a Swedish PR stunt. Shaun Walker reports from Minsk

In the past few weeks, the Belarusian dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, has fired the chief of his air force and border guard patrol; has 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, 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 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 13 July, the police and KGB, as the security services are still known in the country, arrived at his apartment.

They searched the place for incriminating evidence that Mr Suryapin had been personally involved in the drop, and whisked him off to the infamous Amerikanka prison, where he was to spend the next month.

He was charged under Article 371 of the Belarus criminal code, "illegal crossing of the state boundary". "I am a quiet, peaceful person," said Mr Suryapin, who was released from jail two weeks ago. "I am 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 mobile phone 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.

Mr Suryapin says he knew when he posted the photographs that it would be a scandal, but he did not imagine that 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," he says. "I had no contact with these Swedes or with any other Swedes. Ever."

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, 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 Mr Mazetti and his colleagues at Studio Total appear in Minsk for questioning, a request that was met by Mr Mazetti and his partners with ridicule, in an open letter in which they called Mr Lukashenko an "armed clown".

Mr 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, and 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," Mr Mazetti said. "We work with brands to help get the media talking about them, so we decided to use our experience on something that 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 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 who spent part of last year in jail for backing a rival candidate to Mr Lukashenko in 2010. "It's a phenomenal example of idiocy, and they are lucky they didn't get shot down and killed."

Indeed, Mr 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.

Mr Mazetti feels that the response from the Belarusian leader shows that he is rattled, and helps show the full absurdity of the regime to the country's citizens.

"Lukashenko is starting to behave irrationally," he says. "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."

Stripped for action: political protests

* Stripping off is a time-honoured stunt – each spring, farmers march naked through Mexico City over a long-running land dispute.

* In July, European farmers made a "milk lake" by pouring thousands of litres onto the streets of Brussels in protest at the falling price of milk.

* In Toronto, when a policeman said "women should avoid dressing like sluts" to not be victimised, scantily-clad females held a "slut walk" to fight the idea that dress is an invitation to rape.

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
techYahoo Japan launches service to delete your files and email your relatives when you die
Life and Style
Child's play: letting young people roam outdoors directly contradicts the current climate
lifeHow much independence should children have?
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book
booksFind out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>
filmRobert Downey Jr named Hollywood's highest paid actor for second year running
Life and Style
Dale Bolinger arranged to meet the girl via a fetish website
life
Property
Sign here, please: Magna Carta Island
propertyYours for a cool £4m
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Java / J2EE Developer / Agile / Linux

£30,000 to £40,000: IT Connections Ltd: Java / J2EE Developer / Agile / Linux ...

Software Development Manager / Java / J2EE

£45,000 to £55,000: IT Connections Ltd: Software Development Manager / Java / ...

Digital Content Manager,Leicester

£24000 - £28000 per annum: Charter Selection: Leading Nationwide and important...

SAP FICO Trainer

Negotiable: Progressive Recruitment: I am currently seeking a SAP FICO Trainer...

Day In a Page

Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

20 best days out for the summer holidays

From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

All the wood’s a stage

Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

Self-preservation society

Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor