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Swedes launch teddy bear 'assault' on Belarus

Swedes launch teddy bear 'assault' on Belarus

Published: 04 Jul 2012 06:46 GMT+02:00
Updated: 04 Jul 2012 14:47 GMT+02:00

Hundreds of pro-free speech teddy bears carried in a plane piloted by Swedes parachuted down on the Belarusian capital of Minsk early Wednesday morning in a show of support for the country's pro-democracy movement, according to a Swedish PR agency behind the stunt.

"As far as I can tell, the mission was a complete success," one of the plane's Swedish pilots told The Local following the subversive and high-risk show of solidarity.

Organizers claim the audacious stunt began in earnest when the small plane loaded with teddy bears took off from the village of Pociūnai in neighbouring Lithuania under cover of darkness early Wednesday morning on a mission to drop its pro-free speech cargo over the presidential palace in Minsk.

The action was orchestrated by Studio Total, a Swedish PR firm with a history of high-profile and sometimes deceptive publicity stunts.

Related photo gallery from the teddy bear drop:

While the plane did reach the Belarusian capital, the pilots decided not to fly over the presidential palace after receiving a worrying radio transmission.

"We got a call from the airport in Russian and we got a bit nervous," said the pilot.

Instead, the decided to dump the bulk of the plane's plush toy cargo elsewhere in the Minsk metropolitan area.

Planning for the teddy bear drop, which was inspired by Belarus's pro-democracy movement, began nearly a year ago and required two of the organizers to undergo flight training in order to carry out their daredevil voyage – only a matter of months after receiving their pilot's licences.

"There's no democracy without free speech," one of the pilots, who wished to remain anonymous due to security concerns, told The Local prior to the mission.

"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."

He admitted as well that there was a risk the plane would be forced down – or possibly shot down – by the Belarusian military.

"We could end up in prison," he said.

But the fears proved unfounded as the Swedish pilots were able to take their plane safely back across the border after roughly an hour of unauthorized flying in Belarusian air space.

"We were over Belarus for about an hour and twenty minutes," the pilot told The Local after landing once again in Lithuania following the flight.

"I don't know if anyone reported us. We were flying very low."

The Local has so far been unable to independently verify that the flight took place.

However, three current Minsk residents who live in the vicinity of the presidential palace contacted by The Local said they had not seen or heard any low-flying aircraft on Wednesday morning.

Nor had they or any of their colleagues come across any of the hundreds of teddy bears Studio Total claimed had been dropped in the operation.

According to Belarusian news website Tut.by, the ministry of defence in Belarus has no information regarding the incident, but plans to investigate further.

A defence ministry official cast further doubt on reports of the clandestine teddy bear drop, telling the news site that it was "99 percent rubbish".

The motivation behind the elaborate stunt, which organizers claimed resulted in nearly 1,000 plush bears holding pro-free speech slogans written in English and Belarusian parachuting down over Minsk, was an effort to draw attention to the struggling pro-democracy movement in Belarus.

Inspired by Charter 97, a declaration drawn up in 1996 calling for democracy in Belarus, the country's pro-democracy movement continues to fight against the nearly 20 year reign of hard-handed president Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus since 1994 and is often referred to as "Europe's last dictator".

Lukashenko remains in power following the December 2010 elections in which he garnered just shy of 80 percent of the votes, according to official tallies.

Tens of thousands of Belarusians took to the streets in protest following the election, resulting in the arrest of hundreds of opposition activists, as well as several opposition presidential candidates.

In March 2012, the European Union toughened sanctions against Belarus, adding a dozen names to a 200-strong "black list" of individuals banned from traveling to the EU, as well as freezing accounts of 20 Belarusian companies

In response to the move, Lukashenko kicked out ambassadors from Poland and the European Union, prompting a harsh rebuke from Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt.

“He has tried to manipulate and threaten us in different ways and now he attempts to do something that he believes is some sort of pressure on us. We perceive that as weakness and desperation,” Carl Bildt told Sveriges Radio in March.

“He is in a very troublesome position, but now he is burning bridges and that will have negative consequences for him in the long run."

Despite the dangers involved in flying an aircraft into Belarus without authorization and then flying over the capital at low altitudes, one of the pilots emphasized that the Belarusian citizens living under Lukashenko's regime must deal with much greater dangers on a daily basis.

"Using an airplane may seem brave, but living in Belarus takes even more courage," he told The Local.

"Think of living in a country where your family and friends could be arrested or it could happen to you at any time.

According to Studio Total, the action was carried out as an independent show of support for Charter 97, which is also a pro-human rights Belarusian news website.

Studio Total was the same agency responsible for a famous publicity stunt carried out at the Almedalen political meet up in 2010 when politician Gudrun Schyman set fire to 100,000 kronor in cash.

More recently, the agency orchestrated a campaign in autumn 2011 involving a fictional "school of sex" in Austria supposedly run by a Swedish artist.

While the school of sex was eventually proven to be a hoax, the revelations didn't occur until the story had made headlines across the globe.

David Landes

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Your comments about this article

08:25 July 4, 2012 by RobinHood
Lukashenko is a repulsive, vicious toad with no sense of humor. Right now, the chief of the Belarusian air defense and the guys on duty yesterday are having their fingernails pulled out.

Great job with the subversive teddies airdrop. That was a genuinely dangerous thing to do, but it will mean a lot to the long-suffering people of Belarus unfortunate enough to live in Europe's last dictatorship.
09:09 July 4, 2012 by Zhorka
It's quite arrogant on the part of swedes participating in this action
10:14 July 4, 2012 by asteriks
Agreed with Zhorka, especially because Swedish don't protest against HR situation in their country. All computers in libraries are under control, you can't visit any website without to be under control, asylum seekers are spied like in the time of racist Hitler (during that time Swedish crimis do what they want everyday, but they are Swedish so they are not "threat for national security"), racist political party came in in parliaments, SAPO set up Julian Assange for sex rape because he published information about war crimes, and so on. Swedish are quiet all the time, they got 1500 euro salary and therefore they don't care what gov is doing.
11:20 July 4, 2012 by Redfighter
In Belarus people think it's just a canard. Belarus defence ministry has denied the fact, no one has ever seen the teddies or uploaded any photos of them on the ground.

can't say for sure, but the whole report looks pretty fake.
11:27 July 4, 2012 by Alexius
This information is similar to lie. Nobody found these teddy bears in Minsk. Belarusian oppositionalwebsites don't confirm this information. The Ministry of Defence of Belarus says that no plane crossed the air border then.
13:41 July 4, 2012 by roxpace
asteriks: You are a lier or a very blind person, people are NOT getting followed in Sweden, of course PUBLIC libraries monitors their own computers in case people are using their own machines for child pornography, bad web sites or porno since this network and machines are for all and not for a few sick minds. SÄPO did not setup Assange, but in Assange sick mind is everyone following him, ask his closest few left friends or his former friends, they will tell you that Assange is sickly paranoid. Of course sometimes it can be right but not always and Assange did something wrong with the girls and why is he not gonna get a punishment for that like everyone else? (well in case that is a sexual rape)

Alexus and Redfighter: Of course the government in Belarus says that, they ALWAYS censor media, they even say they have qa great country with free speech for the people. Are employed by Belarus government? And there are also photos that proves this protest with airplane dropping the teddy bears. Both well documented with photos both from the ground and the air. But yes NOT by the Belarus government, they will forever deny dangerous teddy bears have dropped over them.
14:25 July 4, 2012 by NyDag
What an extremely foolish thing to do. They put people's lives at risk.
14:33 July 4, 2012 by RobinHood
@Ny Dag

How many people do you think put their lives at risk so you could post what you want on these forums? Show a bit of gratitude please.
15:43 July 4, 2012 by NyDag
No one what so ever. What a stupid thing to say. I am not putting anyone's life at risk by posting here. Flying at such a low level over a capital city in an airspace without authorization could well have been mistaken for a terrorist or hijacked plane. Belarus would have been well within their rights to shoot it down, you know? I guess you had not thought about that. Not to mention the Belarusian people who would be at risk if they pick up those teddies, I hear the security forces are not too pro democracy over there. Furthermore, what do I have to show gratitude for? Stupidity of others?
15:59 July 4, 2012 by Cicero Charles
Belarus has serious human rights issues and maybe peace loving bears can get more world attention than dry political speeches.

A brave effort from the pilots (and the bears).
16:41 July 4, 2012 by Blessed&Cursed
Thank You so much for staying with us! We all living in Belarus in hope that one day order and justice will not only be 'words' but also everyday practice of life. My very best regards to brave pilots! Thank You for not leaving us alone, such 'incidents' shows we are not lonely with our problems and the rest of the world is actually care about what's happening in our country!
18:04 July 4, 2012 by Annasia
http://www.aftonbladet.se/nyheter/almedalen2012/article15074828.ab Some people said that it's fake well here is a clip from when they are flying over belarus (they stayed low so they woulnd be found on the radar)
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