“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.
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.