The "teddy bear war" is heating up.
Belarussian leader Alexander Lukashenko has ordered his law enforcement officials to get to the bottom of the intrusion into his country's airspace last month by a small private aircraft that dropped 879 teddy bears, each on its own individual parachute and bearing a pro-democracy messages such as "we support the Belarussian struggle for free speech."
The stunt was apparently carried out by two Swedes, Tomas Mazetti and Hannah Frey, who said they learned to fly and piloted the plane from Lithuania into Belarussian airspace as their own personal effort to dramatize the struggle for human rights in Belarus.
In an interview with Foreign Policy, Mr. Mazetti and Ms. Frey explained why teddy bears:
TM: There are few examples in history of forcing a dictator to step down through money or weapons alone, and of course one should protest his actions. But a campaign using teddy bears has been received warmly in Belarus, and many people think that it's very funny.
HF: The idea to use the teddy-bear grams was not ours. It originated with an opposition group in Belarus called Speak the Truth. They used teddy bears to spread their message. After we decided to carry out some sort of protest, we saw what they had done, and that's how we arrived at using the teddy bears.
Mr. Lukashenko denied the whole episode until late July, when he sacked two top generals – the head of air defense and the chief of border guards – who are accused of failing to defend the country. Last week, Belarus expelled the Swedish ambassador to Minsk, Stefan Eriksson, without mentioning the teddy bear incident. Later, police arrested two local men, Anton Suryapin and Sergei Basharimov, who face rather serious charges of complicity in the "illegal intrusion" by the Swedish plane.
News reports suggest that Mr. Suryapin, a blogger, may be guilty of little more than posting photos of the teddy bears on his website while Mr. Basharimov, a real estate agent, may have offered to rent an apartment to the two Swedes earlier this year.
Today in a Minsk courtroom two journalists, Irina Kozlik and Yulia Doroshkevich, were convicted and fined the equivalent of several hundred dollars each on the lesser charge of "violating the law on protests" by posing for photographs with some of the teddy bears.
The Swedish embassy has been given until Aug. 30 to remove all its diplomats from Minsk. Apparently undeterred, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt Tweeted yesterday that "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."
But now the Belarussian KGB security service is demanding that representatives of the Swedish advertising agency Studio Total, of which Mr. Mazetti and Ms. Frey are employees, come in for questioning. "We want to have an objective, comprehensive investigation of the case, and an explanation of all aspects of the intrusion into Belarussian airspace," a KGB spokesperson told journalists yesterday.
European Union ambassadors are set to hold an emergency meeting tomorrow to discuss how to respond. Belarus is already subject to sweeping EU sanctions over its ongoing crackdown on political freedoms in the wake of 2010 presidential elections which opponents claimed were rigged in Lukashenko's favor.