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HUMAN RIGHTS

Doubts cast over Belarus teddy bear drop

A Swedish group that claims to have dropped hundreds of 'pro free-speech' teddy bears over a Belarusian town early this morning has released a video that they say shows their stunt taking place. But no teddy bears have been found on the ground.

Doubts cast over Belarus teddy bear drop

The footage, shot from the ground in the town of Ivianiec, shows a small, single engine Jodel aircraft cruising in over the city, located about 75 kilometres west of Minsk.

Several small objects with what appear to be parachutes can be seen floating down from the plane over the city with its landmark Church of Saint Euphrosyne clearly visible in the video.

In the video (embedded below), a banner can be seen with text referencing Belarusian independence, which was celebrated on Tuesday, July 3rd.

However, the manager of the only hotel in Ivianiec told The Local that, as far as she knew, no teddy bears had been found.

“We haven’t seen any teddy bears or any other kind of bears falling from the sky,” she said.

“We can see the church from the hotel. I was tending my tomatoes early this morning and I’m sure I would have heard something.”

While the stated goal of the stunt, organized by Swedish public relations firm Studio Total, had been to drop the plane’s cargo of 1,000 pro-democracy teddy bears on the presidential palace in Minsk, they now claim they were forced to divert after being contacted by airport radio operators on the ground.

“We got a call from the airport in Russian and we got a bit nervous,” the pilot told The Local.

“Storm clouds were also looming at the start of the journey, but we managed to get in and out without any real problems.”

Related images of teddy bear drop from Studio Total:

Despite denials from the Belarusian Ministry of Defence, as well as a lack of reports from residents of Minsk or Ivianiec of having seen any teddy bears falling from the sky, representatives from Studio Total remain adamant that the pilots did fly the small plane in and out of Belarus in a show of solidarity with groups fighting to bring an end to the rule of president Alexander Lukashenko.

“I can assure you that the plane flew into Belarusian airspace. This was not some sort of hoax,” Tomas Mazetti of Studio Total told The Local.

Several media outlets remained sceptical about the teddy bear “bombardment” of Belarus, as Studio Total has been known to pull the wool over journalists’ eyes in the past.

In 2005, Studio Total made a splash when it launched the fictional Kulturpartiet (‘Culture Party’) which turned out to be a PR gimmick carried out to spark a debate on culture issues.

And in 2011, Studio Total fooled journalists around the world with the launch of the fictional Austrian International School of Sex (AISOS), which in reality was part of a publicity campaign meant to draw attention to Austria’s low birth rate.

Speaking Wednesday with media trade publication Resumé, Swedish Belarus expert Martin Uggla said he thought the stunt was probably a hoax.

“I can’t say it 100 percent, but it certainly seems improbable,” he told Resumé, pointing out that no opposition groups were discussing the action later in the day.

Nevertheless, Mazetti maintained that Studio Total has carried out dozens of other “legitimate” publicity campaigns, including Wednesday’s pro-democracy teddy bear drop.

“It’s one thing to make something up about a sex school, but the fight for free speech in Belarus is not a joking matter,” he said.

“This campaign is credible and has helped draw attention to an issue we feel is very important…we’re good at getting attention so we wanted to use what we were good at.”

He explained, however, that the teddy bear stunt wasn’t meant to prompt debate about how well media outlets check their facts, but rather to support groups like Charter 97 and “Tell the Truth!” which are fighting for free speech in Belarus – a country ruled since 1994 by Lukashenko, who is often referred to as “Europe’s last dictator”.

Editor’s note: following the release of additional details by Studio Total as well as teddy bear sightings on the ground in Belarus, the flight has since been confirmed. Read more in The Local’s follow-up story: Belarus teddy bear ‘bombers’ unmasked

David Landes

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BELARUS

“Go all the way – doubt kills everything”

SI alum Katsiaryna Syrayezhkina tells SI News about a recent event she organized in Minsk about sustainable living, and advises current students and alumni on how to make a difference.

On September 16th, the seminar “Sustainable lifestyle: small actions, big difference” took place in Minsk, Belarus, in cooperation with the Association of European Business and ODB-Brussels (Belgium).

SI alum Katsiaryna Syrayezhkina was behind the initiative, where key topics included sustainable lifestyle, ecological foot prints, eco-friendly initiatives, sustainable consumption, and energy efficient housing

“I was inspired by the Smart Living Exchange organized by the Swedish Institute and its partner organizations,” Katsiaryna tells SI News.

“As an SI alumna, I decided to replicate this experience in my country and organize a seminar covering sustainable transport, consumption and housing practices in Sweden and Belarus.”

During the seminar, experts and participants discussed the barriers, triggers, and motivators of moving towards healthier choices and a better quality of life while minimizing the use of natural resources and toxic materials.

The Swedish and Belarusian experts spoke about “circular” economy and the economy of “sharing”, links between “couch-surfing”, cycling infrastructure and sustainable development, EU sustainable practices, and partnerships between businesses and NGOs.

The event participants thus were given the opportunity to compare both the Belarusian and European experience of such matters.

Katsiaryna says the event was a success, but that one of the main challenges was simply getting other alumni involved and interested.

“It's always difficult to get local SI alumni interested,” she says, “so I always try to think about some extra benefits for attendees.”

Benefits this time included an excursion to BelVTI recycling plant  on the same day, and participants also had the opportunity to taste a vegetarian buffet organized by the VegaMara project team.

Another key challenge was getting Swedish experts to come speak at the event.

“Belarus doesn’t seem to be at the top of the list of countries to visit,” she remarks.

But in the end the work paid off, and Katsiaryna noted that there are many similarities between the two countries – and that they should work together more.

“I think we have much in common with Swedes: mentality, history .. even weather!” she says.

Having studied in many countries – including France, Poland, Belgium, and Sweden – Katsiaryna says that it’s hard to know what exactly has made her the person she is today, but that her time abroad has definitely affected her in many ways.

“The most important thing is that I learned to take the opportunity to fail,” she confides. “We take things way too seriously in post-Soviet countries, while the most important thing in life is to enjoy yourself in everything you do.”

For those who are currently studying with the SI programme in Sweden, Katsiaryna recommends being open and totally embracing the experience.

“I would advise current students to immerse themselves in a new culture, rather than trying to recreate a little 'home' and hide inside from everybody,” she says.

 As for the other SI alumni – if you have something to share, just do it.

“Don’t have second thoughts, just give it a try and go all the way,” she says. “Otherwise you start hesitating and as we all know, doubt kills everything.”