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Absolute Success of Operation "Teddy Bear" in Belarus

Published on , , Zagreb
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What does motivate a man to train to become a pilot in order to risk his or her life while flying over "hostile territory" to disseminate leaflets and to return? From which EU member state must these people come from, risking their peaceful everyday lives in support of the fight for freedom of speech in totalitarian Belarus? Contrary to many expectations, including my own, those are not people from the former communist camp, whom I thought would be among the first to rush forward to defend the right of democracy and human rights in Belarus. Excluding Poland, which has put the "rescue" of Belarus high up in its agenda. Those are people who come from a truly free and democratic country - Sweden - and who, hiding their faces under bear-masks, explain simply: "There's no democracy without free speech. Everything that's worth fighting for is hard. There is a price to pay. If we could do something over drinks in Sweden, that would be great, but it wouldn't have the same effect", says one of the pilots who preferred to remain anonymous for security reasons.

On July 4th teddy bears rained over Belarus

A Swedish PR firm organised in the course of almost a year an extremely audacious action, the purpose of which was to give a signal of support to the Belarusian opposition that it is not forgotten. For the purpose a light air plane was loaded with teddy bears to which slogans in Russian and English were attached expressing support for the freedom of speech in Belarus and for the Belarusian opposition. The plane takes off early in the morning on July 4th from a Lithuanian village near the border with Belarus, it flies low, trying to avoid the Belarusian radars and with the idea to drop the cargo over the presidential palace in Minsk. In the last moment, however, the pilots decide to quit plans to fly over the presidential palace because they received a "worrying radio message". Instead, they decide to drop the precious cargo elsewhere in Minsk.

The operation continued more than an hour and ended successfully, judging from the stories of the Swedish pilots who in the course of a year trained to fly in order to complete the mission. In spite of their full awareness of the huge risk they would be exposed to - their plane to be shot down and everyone on board to die or be arrested and rot in Belarusian prisons without being able to benefit from something they've been raised with - rights - the organisers and the pilots are nonetheless surprised by the heavy consequences this campaign evokes.

Initially, Belarus is silent and denies there was a violation of its air space. Then follows a series of domestic and out-bound sharp reactions - from dismissals at the high levels of Belarusian defence to expelling the Swedish ambassador, followed by a closure of the embassy of Sweden in Minsk, urgent meetings in the EU and threats of new sanctions against Alexander Lukashenko's regime. The very story about what exactly happened and why the plane was able to safely fly over is not unimportant and is already being discussed by experts. More important, however, is the message that reached its target, making the operation a huge success.

A small number of Belarusian citizens actually saw the leaflets but instead they were multiplied by the Belarusian media. Not in our democratic vein - presenting all the possible points of view - but in an attempt to paint a bad image of Sweden as a country, eroding Belarus from the inside. However, the Belarusian citizens got a very important piece of information - that someone is ready to risk their lives for them. And that was precisely the aim of the operation. Moreover, the Belarusian authorities allowed this in their wish to show muscles. In an attempt to cover up its failure to prevent the accident, as well as to tap any possible coverage of the flying teddy bears, the Belarusian KGB arrested Anton Suryapin - a student who dared to publish on the Internet photos from the flying bears. As a result, the chief of the Swedish PR company, Per Cromwell, wrote a letter to the Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko, in which he says:

"Studio Total never told Anton Suryapin or indeed any other Belarusian citizen in advance about what we planned to do. We love (respect) and admire them too much to expose them to such risks. It was easy to find all we needed to know about Belarusian air defence on the Internet (Wikipedia), and the description was the same everywhere: a brutal, but severely malfunctioning mechanism, best suited for parades and for harassing civilians". Further in the letter, written in a disparaging and haughty tone, Mr Cromwell calls: "Our advice to you is this: pull yourself together, before it is too late. Use some of the financial resources you're spending on the KGB and military parades to help the nation out of its financial crisis. More importantly. Be less politically active. Perhaps you could play a little more hockey? They tell us you are quite good at that! And wouldn't it feel good to win without cheating, for a change? You are the leader of a fantastic people. They deserve change".

In the end of his letter, the Studio Total chief calls against Belarusian citizens being tortured but the real perpetrators to be called. Something to which the Belarusian state ear does not remain deaf. KGB sends a subpoena, giving 10 days to the organisers to appear in the offices of the bureau in Minsk to testify or otherwise face sanctions. This provoked Per Cromwell to write a second letter on August 14th, in which he says: "Dear Aleksander Lukashenko. It's been a month since we flew over your capital to drop teddy bears and weeks since our last letter to you, so we thought it's time we got in touch again. A lot has happened. You have fired two of your highest ranking Generals, talked a lot about us on Belarusian TV and even invited us to visit your KGB in Minsk. Flattering as it is for a small advertising agency to get this kind of attention from a real live dictator (especially since there are not so many of you bona fide dictators left) there are some details we need to discuss".

The letter contains four points in which Cromwell explains why he and his team will not go to Minsk but instead they invite "Alexander Lukashenko the dictator" to visit the office of the firm in Sweden. Something which he is unlikely to do because of the ban the EU imposed on him two years ago.

The reactions

Apart from the correspondence between the small private Swedish company and the Belarusian authorities, the tension ran high at a high diplomatic level as well. A little after the teddy bear incident the Belarusian authorities refuse to extend the accreditation of Stefan Ericsson, the Swedish ambassador. In an official statement the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belarus explains this decision as follows: "Mr. Stefan Eriksson worked in Minsk for about 7 years. This is a long term. During all this time his activities were aimed not at the strengthening of relations between Belarus and Sweden, but on their erosion. The decision taken lays exclusively in the sphere of bilateral relations. We are ready to make efforts to maintain the constructive nature of our relations. At the same time if the Swedish side will seek to aggravate the situation we will be forced to react adequately". The statement is from August 3rd.

Sweden decided to respond by expelling two senior Belarusian diplomats from Sweden. On August 8th the Belarusian foreign ministry states: "The reasons behind the decision of the Belarusian Side not to renew the accreditation to the former Ambassador of Sweden to Belarus Mr. Stefan Eriksson are clear and require no additional comment. Given the concurrent recall to Minsk of Ambassador of Belarus to Sweden Mr. Andrei Grinkevich, the Belarusian Side regarded the conflict to have been resolved, and was ready for mutual efforts to reshape the constructive elements of mutual relations.

Another proof of that are earlier efforts of the Belarusian Side to prevent turning the situation into a conflict. Regrettably, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Sweden preferred to aggravate the situation and took an additional decision to expel from the country two senior diplomats of the Embassy of Belarus, including the Chargé d’Affaires, and to deny entry to Sweden for the new Ambassador of Belarus, who had received the agrément of the Government of Sweden. As a result, the diplomatic staff of the Belarusian Embassy in Stockholm were reduced to two junior diplomats, who do not have sufficient authority or qualifications to run the mission", Belarus's statement reads.

Sweden's Foreign Minister Carl Bildt recalled on August 4th on Twitter "the truly miserable state of human rights in Belarus", of which it was "important to speak up", and on August 8 he wrote: "We remain strongly committed to the freedom of Belarus and all its citizens. They deserve the freedoms and the rights of the rest of Europe".

Several member states immediately stood behind Sweden, mainly Scandinavian and Baltic countries. On August 3rd the EU high representative for foreign policy, Catherine Ashton, expressed concern with the situation and added: "The European Union and Sweden are committed to the modernisation of Belarus and to the spread of European values, in particular Democracy, Human Rights and the Rule of Law [these words are written precisely like this in the statement - with capital letters]". Soon after that there was an extraordinary meeting of the EU political directors, which also ended with a statement, stating generally that the member states support Catherine Ashton's statement of August 3rd and in the same time express their "dismay" that none of the political prisoners have not been released as envisaged in a recently announced amnesty.

In the autumn, additional sanctions against the Lukashenko regime will be discussed, becomes clear from the statement which is by the way quite toothless. It is a fact, though, that there are not many things the EU can do apart from enhancing its support for the Belarusian opposition which already is a fact. In February 2011, in Warsaw, there was a donor conference where a commitment was made the assistance to be increased 4 times. At the moment it is 19.3 mn euros for the period 2011-2013. The actions of the Swedish advertising firm, however, can create new serious tests for the European diplomacy. Now is the time the EU to act united as one because the "dirty work" has already been done by Studio Total - it voiced the opinion everyone has about Alexander Lukashenko that this is one of the few surviving dictators in the world, who takes risks to keep himself and his clique in power.

And not only because of this but also because of the fact that if the EU engages in an open battle with Lukashenko it risks to meet foreheadedly opposition from Russia - an experience which the international community, with a bitter taste, still is chewing because of Syria. We can judge about this from the way the situation between Sweden and Belarus is described in the Russian daily Pravda, which says that obviously the violation of the law does not cause a scandal as it should since this is a matter of distribution of anti-governmental leaflets during an illegal violation of Belarus's border. Russia has its reasons to be personally affected by the incident - the daily recalls the accident with Mathias Rust who landed his small plane on the Red Square in 1987. "Sweden has positioned itself as a fervent champion of human rights in Belarus. However, protecting the rights does not mean going beyond diplomatic etiquette and rules of conduct in a foreign country, not to mention encouraging violations of international law".

At the moment, the EU is facing a tough challenge - to tackle its own problems without, however, turning its back to the not less important issues around it. A challenge which, if failed, would cost dearly to the Union and its citizens. Belarus will be the litmus test on how the EU is defending its values, especially those inscribed with capital letters above, not just speaking of them.

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