- Politics and Social Issues
Teddy Bear Paratroopers Invade Belarus
Protesting President Lukashenko's Regime
On July 4, 2012, hundreds of elite teddy bear paratroopers parachuted in broad daylight upon a defenseless and stunned Belarus citizenry. At last report, the casualty list includes two Belarus generals, the Swedish ambassador to Belarus, the entire Swedish embassy staff in Belarus and the Belarus embassy staff in Sweden and two Belarussian citizens who may be sentenced to seven years imprisonment for allegedly giving aid to the “invasion”.
Two members of Studio Total, a Swedish advertising agency, took off in their small plane from a Lithuanian airfield on Wednesday July 4, 2012 and headed for Minsk, Belarus' capital city. Hannah Frey and Tomas Mazetti, wearing little bear masks, were attempting to protest the repressive regime of Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko. Aboard their crowded craft were over 800 plush teddy bears with parachutes bearing slogans like “We support the Belarus struggle for free speech” and “Belarus Freedom”.
The Teddy Bear Invasion
Despite the quixotic nature of the protest, Hannah and Tomas were not certain they would be able to penetrate Belarus airspace. They were well aware that, in 1995, a Belarussian military helicopter shot down two Americans in a balloon who had drifted off course in a balloon race, killing both of them. Still, they felt strongly enough about showing solidarity with ordinary people living in what has been described as “the last true remaining dictatorship in the heart of Europe” to take the risk.
To their surprise, the whole thing went off without a hitch-- discounting the aftermath of their flight. The two flew around Belarussian territory for more than 90 minutes. When they approached Minsk, they started pushing the little bears out the window, leaving a trail of parachutes behind them-- more than 800, each bearing their human rights messages. Hannah and Tomas even videoed the event, a small portion of which can be viewed at the end of this article.
1987: A Cessna Invades Soviet Airspace
In 1987, 18-year-old German national Mathias Rust flew a Cessna from Finland into Russia and landed next to Red Square in the heart of Moscow. His stunt reduced the prestige of the Soviet military and may have contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union. On the other hand, Soviet fighters were not given permission to shoot him out of the sky.
Belarus, Soviet Style
Belarus gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and has been ruled since 1994 by Alexander Lukashenko. Its 10 million citizens would scarcely be able to tell the difference between Soviet rule and Lukashenko's rule. The streets are clean, the highways well-maintained. There's less choice but quality is available. Prices are higher. Medical care is free. The state owns all the land. Ninety percent of industry is still owned by the state. There is still a Belarus KGB carefully watching over everyone. Dissent is not encouraged.
The Ugly Aftermath
At first, the government denied their airspace was penetrated. Then the Swedes released their video and images of bears floating from the sky appeared on the Internet. Later, it admitted that the plane had illegally entered the country. Two generals, one the head of border security and the other chief of the air force, lost their jobs. Two Belarussian citizens were picked up and held by the KGB, charged with conspiring with the Swedes. Anton Suryapin, a student journalist, who published photos of the descending bears on his website and a real estate agent who offered shelter to the Swedes before they made their flight both face up to seven years imprisonment.
In addition, the Swedish embassy has been shut down in Belarus as has the Belarus embassy in Sweden (though officially these closings are not tied directly to the bear invasion). The KGB has demanded Hannah, Tomas and a third member of Studio Total, Per Cromwell, to appear in Belarus to answer questions about the stunt. In response, Per Cromwell, in an open letter to Lukashenko, taunted him and called him a dangerous armed clown.
Even the Estonians and Lithuanians are mixing it up with Lithuania blaming Estonia for the lapse which allowed the small craft to take off from Lithuanian territory. As part of a joint NATO operation charged with watching Lithuanian airspace, the Estonian shift was supposedly on watch.
There's plenty of comedic gold in all this. I would imagine the second-most difficult job in Belarus, behind being a protester, that is, would be stand-up comic. All that material and no place to use it. The teddy bear invasion has managed to focus world attention on the excesses of the Belarussian leadership like nothing else. If this persuades Lukashenko to loosen up even a little bit, ordinary Belarussians may yet feel the benefit.