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.
Independent Pollsters Will be Prosecuted – Belarus Politics Digest
Fines for unsanctioned polls. The House of Representatives approved in the first reading a bill of amendments, which would establish administrative liability for non-licensed public opinion surveys. The fine would in particular be established for “illegal” polls asking people about their opinion about political situation the country, a national referendum, or parliamentary and presidential elections. It would equal 20 base rates (about $240) for individuals and up to 100 base rates (about $1,200) for legal entities.
New IISEPS survey. In June, the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS) conducted a survey of public opinion on major issues of life of Belarusians. In particular, the experts observe stabilization of the "economic health" of Belarusians, but also an increasing number of people who believe that Belarus needs changes (77.3%). Also, Alexander Lukashenka's electoral rating has dropped to 29.7% compared to March (34.5%).
Council of the Republic adopted the draft law on KGB. On June 22, the upper house of Parliament adopted the draft law "On the State Security Bodies of Belarus". The law establishes the basic tasks, activities of state security, the responsibilities of the president and government in the field of the state security. The bill defines the conditions and limits of the security organs with regards to physical force, special equipment, weapons and military equipment.
Art-Siadziba ousted. Pavel Belavus, the Art-siadziba director, was summoned by the premises owner (the administration of the Horizont plant) that they must leave the office by July 23 and that their contract that had to expire at the end of October has been cancelled. The reason for it was the fact that they violated fire safety and numerous other regulations.
Amnesty International declares Pochobut prisoner of conscience but he is released shortly. In a statement on June 26, Amnesty International has declared Belarusian journalist Andrzej Poczobut a prisoner of conscience detained solely for exercising his right to freedom of expression. On June 30, Andrey Pochobut was released from the Grodno prison under travel ban.
Opinion of animal defenders taken into account. The claims of CSOs involved in animal protection, as well as ordinary citizens were taken into account and the draft law "On the treatment of animals" was sent back for revision. It was reported by the internet community "Right to Life."
Uruccha protesters dispersed by police. Leanid Mazhalski, one of the leaders of a group of people protesting against a infill construction in Uruccha city district was detained in Minsk on July 5. The hearings in court are scheduled for July 17. It should be noted that inhabitants of Minsk protested against the construction of six blocks of flats for riot policemen in the district. The construction works are going on in spite of their protests.
National Gender Policy Council’s structure approved. The Council of Ministers approved internal regulations of the National Council for Gender Policy. Along with numerous government officials, the Council will include representatives of at least three women CSOs: Gender Perspectives, Young Christian Women Association and Women’s Independent Democratic Movement.
The draft law on state social contracting adopted by the Parliament. On June 27, the House of Representatives adopted the amendments to some laws on social service. One of the most important parts of the bill is introduction of the mechanism of social contracting that allows nonprofit organizations to get funding from the state budget.
Deputy Minister participated in the CSO training. On June 26-27, NGO "ACT" together with Mogilev oblast executive committee held a training on "Social contracting basics" for Mogilev officials. Among the speakers there were the deputy chairman of the Mogilev Regional Executive Committee Valery Malashko, as well as Deputy Minister of Labour and Social Affairs Alexander Rumak.
EU creates pro-democracy fund. On June 25, EU member states agreed to create a European endowment for democracy aimed to encourage "deep and sustainable" change in societies struggling under oppressive regimes, EU observer informs. The fund should become operational by next year and will primarily target EU neighbouring countries such as Belarus, where people are routinely jailed for showing opposition to President Alexander Lukashenka.
PACE committee statement on Belarus. The Committee on Political Affairs and Democracy of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), in a statement on June 26, urged the Belarusian authorities to "open up political space" ahead of September's parliamentary elections. The statement called on the Belarusian leadership to promote a democratic and fair parliamentary campaign and to ensure freedom of expression, association and assembly, as well as political rights for all opposition movements.
Ashton calls on authorities to stop harassment of opponents. In a statement on June 29, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton has called on the authorities in Belarus to stop the harassment of the opposition, media and civil society, expressing deep concern at a number of recent incidents.
Worst of the Worst 2012. A new Freedom House report "Worst of the Worst 2012: The World’s Most Repressive Societies" highlights those countries that earned the lowest possible scores (Worst of the Worst) or fell just short of the bottom scores (On the Threshold) in Freedom in the World 2012, Freedom House’s annual global assessment of political rights and civil liberties. Belarus was deemed to be “On the Threshold” together with Burma, Chad, China, Cuba, Laos, and Libya.
Linas Linkevicius appointed as Lithuanian new ambassador to Belarus. Linas Linkevicius, a former Lithuanian defense minister, has been appointed as the Baltic state's new ambassador to Belarus, said a spokesperson for the Lithuanian embassy in Minsk on July 5.
UN appointed a special rapporteur on Belarus. On July 5, the United Nations' Human Rights Council adopted a resolution and agreed to appoint a special rapporteur to monitor the situation of human rights in Belarus and to make recommendations for its improvement. The 47-nation council voted to create the post, as proposed by the European Union, by 22 votes to 5, with 20 abstentions. Belarus does not recognize the mandate of the UNHRC Special Rapporteur on Belarus and will not cooperate with him, the press service of the Foreign Ministry of Belarus said.
Belarusian envoy speaks against the appointment of rapporteur on Belarus at UN Human Rights Council. Mikhail Khvastow, Belarus' permanent representative to the UN Office in Geneva, said on June 28 during a session of the UN Human Rights Council that there was no need for the appointment of a special rapporteur on Belarus.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials provided by Pact. This digest attempts to give a richer picture of the recent political and civil society events in Belarus. It often goes beyond the hot stories already available in English-language media.