Swedes Bomb Belarus with Toys

On 4 July, Swedish amateur pilots penetrated Belarus' airspace according to an email received by Belarus Digest. Their small aircraft crossed the Lithuanian-Belarusian border and parachuted hundreds of teddy-bears with notes of support for the freedom of speech. Covered by some Belarusian and Swedish media, but denied by the Belarusian authorities, the flight has generated more publicity than some of the pro-democracy initiatives by civil society groups and the EU in Belarus.

“We planned the operation for one year, bought an airplane, learned how to fly, had people on the ground that [sic] was supposed to help out if the plane got shot down,” Hannah Frey wrote in an email to Belarus Digest on 5 July. Frey and co-pilot Thomas Mazetti were not afraid to risk their lives – unlike Belarusians, some of whom are afraid to talk to the media and will neither deny nor confirm the incident. 

According to Frey, the idea for the operation came from the "toy protest" in Minsk organised by opposition activist Paval Vinahradau in February 2012. Vinahradau was punished with 10 days in jail for placing stuffed animals to Minsk's Independence Square with placards like “Free the people” and "Toys against lawlessness." Studio Total, the company behind the campaign, was sending a gesture of support and encouragement for the Belarusian people.

Debates over the Teddy-bear Campaign

The daring flight over Belarus unleashed several debates. One is whether the event reported in Belarusian and Swedish press has even occurred. The Belarusian defence ministry denied the entry of the aircraft and decried photos and videos provided by Studio Total as “visual falsification”. If the teddy-bears were simply hurriedly picked up by the Belarusian police upon landing, then Minsk is risking a huge embarrassment. The idea of dropping stuffed animals is catchy and memorable and even the people who have not seen the evidence for themselves are likely to remember the incident – of course, if they understand the message that the Swedish pilots risked their lives to send. 

Another debate is over the efficiency of the Belarusian air defence and the inviolability of Belarus borders. Some laugh at Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s endless references of Belarus as Russia’s shield after the Swedes have already safely returned home, others point out that the early-warning radar on Belarusian territory is supposed to detect objects only at an altitude of 30 metres or higher. If so, the fact that the small plane entered Belarusian airspace does little to humiliate the Belarusian air defence.

Learning from the incident, the Belarusian authorities may decide to invest in a new low-altitude radar technology and even create a continuous radar field along the Belarus border. They are also more likely to shoot without thinking next time they see foreigners crossing the airspace illegally. 

The most important question, however, is whether the Belarusian people have understood the message sent by the Swedes. After all, some were said to be tearing up the toys in the hope of finding money inside them. Moreover, few were able to understand the English-language notes attached to the teddy-bears. The fact that some Belarusians avoid speaking to journalists and neither deny nor admit the event stands in contrast to the courage of the Swedish team.

Private Companies: a New Generation of Democracy Champions?

Unlike most other pro-democracy campaigns, the teddy-bear campaign was initiated by a Western PR company. No government, no civil society, and no Western donors were involved. This may explain why even the Swedish media have initially doubted that the flight has occurred. After all, not only is Studio Total a PR company, but it is also known for organising a few hoaxes in the past.

At the same time, only a private company like Studio Total could have a significant amount of money to spend exclusively on a flashy and dangerous publicity stunt while keeping its plans secret from both the Swedish and the Belarusian authorities. Dependent on donor approval and generally tight-pursed, non-governmental organisations are unable to organise expensive and dangerous excursions into restricted airspace exclusively for attracting media attention.

The teddy-bears came from Sweden, a country that has taken interest in Belarus on multiple occasions. The country has consistently occupied top positions in democracy rankings and has been exceptionally critical of  Belarusian authoritarianism. Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt was among the most involved European politicians who was actively discussing Belarus at the highest levels.

Swedish authorities have supported democracy in Belarus by offering exchange programmes and educational opportunities to Belarusian youth, journalists and policymakers, and empowering Belarus women. In return, Belarus has denied visas to Swedish politicians on multiple occasions. Earlier this year, a visa was refused to the head of the regional structure of the Social Democratic Workers' Party of Sweden, Lars Ove Yangson. When even the private citizens of Sweden have begun to champion democracy, the visa rules may become even more unpredictable.

Belarusians: See No Evil? 

The residents of small Belarusian town Ivyanets who have witnessed the flight say all dropped teddy-bears were picked up by the police and taken away. Some recall the police throwing rocks into a tree to take down one of the teddy-bears stuck in its brunches. But most are afraid to talk, which could be why two days after the incident the mystery of the teddy-bears’ landing is yet to be resolved conclusively.

Unnoticed by the Belarus air force, the Swedes safely returned home. It is no exaggeration to say that they had risked their lives during the operation: the Belarusian border guards would not have hesitated to shoot them down. In 1996, the Belarusian army shot down an unarmed air balloon, which drifted into Belarusian air space during an international balloon race.

The Belarusian military killed two Americans, and as former US Ambassador to Belarus Kenneth Yalowitz pointed out in a recent interview to Belarus Digest, they did not even apologise for the innocent lives lost. If back then President Lukashenka defended the shooting by claiming that the balloon was spying on military installations, he would have even less remorse after taking down a pro-democracy operation. 

At the end of the day, it does not matter whether we all believe in the teddy-bear operation. The news about the flight has left a very real impression in the minds of the people. The story is making circles in the Belarusian blogosphere: people joke about the inviolability of the Belarusian airspace and ridicule the police hunting for something as innocent as a stuffed toy. Continuous denial of the incident will only put the Belarusian authorities in an increasingly difficult position.

The brave flight should serve as an inspiration not only to Belarusians, but also to other Europeans. Europe should follow the Swedish example – of course, not by undertaking similarly dangerous stunts, but by taking action and addressing the Belarusian people directly instead of wasting time on the endless high-level talks about sanctions. Only then will the Belarusian people start feeling that their Western neighbours are not indifferent to their difficult lives in Belarus.

Volha Charnysh is an analyst with the Ostrogorski Centre, the Executive Editor of Belarus Digest and a PhD Candidate in Government at Harvard University.

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