Updated at 14:58,21-10-2016

SBS: Everybody is laughing at Lukashenko except him

29-10-2012, 01:21
SBS: Everybody is laughing at Lukashenko except him

What do you do if you care about human rights and you live near a country whose president has been dubbed Europe's last dictator? At home in Sweden, people around you take freedom of speech for granted. But in Belarus, people who oppose the Soviet-style regime are beaten up and thrown into prison.

What do you do if you care about human rights and you live near a country whose president has been dubbed Europe's last dictator? At home in Sweden, people around you take freedom of speech for granted. But in Belarus, people who oppose the Soviet-style regime are beaten up and thrown into prison.

Per Cromwell: Belarus is very close to Sweden. The situation in Belarus is completely hopeless. Not that much people talk about the situation in Belarus - people tend to be more interested speaking about Kim Kardashian than the situation in Belarus. We thought we should do something about it. It's just too close and too bad to leave left alone.

Advertising man Per Cromwell did some very Scandinavian-style brainstorming trying to figure out what to do.

- You get a bit dizzy and without the side-effects of alcohol. So I think this is a very good replacement of alcohol, actually - have a long, hot summer bath.

- You think that's also why you come out with ideas that might be a bit nutty?

- Ah, that might have something to do with it, yeah. Yeah. Our philosophy is that the future belongs to the ones who tell the best stories. We are an ad agency that don't do ads.

But Per Cromwell knows that being provocative in Belarus can have serious consequences. In February, a group of self-styled creative hooligans used stuffed toys to protest laws banning demonstrations in Belarus. The toys were taken away by police, as was the stunt's ringleader, Pavel Vinogradov. Suddenly it was obvious what Sweden's own creative hooligans needed to do.

- The best way would be to buy an aeroplane... Cross the border illegally... And drop teddy bears over a dictator. After a while, that became kind of obvious that that was the best thing we could do.

They tried to minimise the risk by flying very early in the morning on the Fourth of July - the day before was Belarussian Independence Day, marked with a huge military parade. The Swedes were hoping that, with all the vodka being drunk that night, those charged with protecting the border would have their guard down in the morning.

- We kind of counted on that - the chain of command would be a little bit out of order, with generals being a little bit hung-over.

Tomas and Hannah flew low to avoid radar detection. They knew it could be a matter of life and death. Just a few days earlier, they'd learned that in 1995, two American hot-air balloonists had been shot down over Belarus by a helicopter gunship.

Tomas Mazetti: One part of this is that we needed to take a risk. We needed to risk something. We risked money, of course - we used a lot of money on this. We used our time. But also to really show that we meant this was something serious. We didn't let anyone else take that risk for us.

After dropping bears over the village of Ivyanets, Tomas and Hannah continued to the outskirts of Minsk, and left the rest of their payload - almost 800 bears in total. They were in Belarussian airspace for less than 90 minutes and as far as the authorities were concerned, they'd never been there at all.

Authorities: The army command claims there was no plane and thjat the video is faked enemy propaganda.

"Studying the photo and video materials, the experts discovered elements of crude video fakery testifying to the provocative nature of the data."

But within a few hours of the flight, the first pictures of the subversive teddies were posted online.

Anton Surapin: I was walking with my friends and got a message, my girlfriend was saying that there were teddy bears. She took photos and sent them to me. I published them on the website I edit and that was it. That was the first piece of evidence coming from Belarus confirming that it really did happen.

20-year-old journalism student Anton Suryapin knew the risk he was taking. Nine days later, the KGB knocked on his door.

- They came to do a search, they locked me up at the KGB detention centre and I spent a month and four days in the KGB prison.

Suryapin was charged with being an accessory to the Swedes' illegal border crossing - in other words, blamed for something the government said had never happened. In August, journalists in Minsk campaigned for Suryapin's release, photographing themselves with one of the bears and posting the photos on the internet.

Yulia Doroshkevich: Any one of us could have been in Suryapins place. It is clear that this 20-year-old kid who didnt create the photos but got them from somewhere is being made a scapegoat because the authorities yawned so wide they missed the bears.

Things then got even sillier. Yulia Doroshkevich was arrested when she was photographing Russian journalist Irina Kozlik. They were jailed overnight, and fined about $400 each. The charge was picketing by means of photography. Yulia says the authorities were desperately improvising.

- It was a novel situation and they were at a loss. They were not ready, they did not know how to react, so this absurdist theatre began where crowds of adults from the special forces were hunting tiny stuffed bears, presenting real teenagers with search warrants, arresting journalists for taking photos with toys. They were at a loss.

Lukashenka: Our state boarder should not be crossed with impunity. Suppress any intrusion by every means possible, including armed response.

He finally admitted the teddy bears were real after three weeks of denials.

Newsreader: Now, Belarus has fired two of its military top brass over the failure to stop an invasion of Swedish parachuting teddy bears. To explain why the fur is flying in Minsk... Lukashenko sacked the Border Committee Head and the Air Defence Chief, major-generals Igor Rachkovsky and Dmitry Pakhmelkin.

Every war has casualties - even one waged against stuffed toys. Also in President Lukashenko's line of fire - the Swedish government.

- What did you think of the way Lukashenko reacted?

Per Cromwell: People are afraid of him, but when he reacts - overreacts, silly people tend to laugh at him and don't take him seriously. When that happens, then a dictator really is in big trouble - when people no longer really fear him, that they think that he's ridiculous.

Around the world, people responded to the crackdown in Belarus with humour and mockery. Toy protests were staged outside Belarussian embassies throughout Europe.

So what did the man who inspired the Swedish action, Pavel Vinogradov, think of it?

- The idea of teddy bears jumping from a plane is certainly a great one, a surprising one. Pity I didnt think of it, but I dont have the opportunity or the resources to do it. All in all, it is good the Swedes supported us in that way.

Vinogradov has been jailed six times this year, and last month he was back in court. His latest arrest was thanks to a government crackdown in the run-up to parliamentary elections. Vinogradov belongs to a group of activists called Zmena - and this is how they launched the campaign of their own candidate. But it was just a front - they used the campaign as legal cover for their protests. Four days before the vote, police decided their 'Get Out of Jail Free' card had run out.

Today, four of Zmena's activists are on trial, but the atmosphere in court is surprisingly up-beat.

- Well, I think that. What do you mean by serious? Serious. The purges of 1937 were serious. That was serious, people got shot and now the maximum I can get is 25 days behind bars. Its the seventh time actually, Im used to it. Why should I be upset? Nothing that terrible is going on.

I ask Pavel how he came up with the idea of using stuffed toys in protests.

- Fun and laughter kill fear I realised that long ago and it really works. And secondly, I am provoking the regime into reacting unreasonably and I want them to look absurd. So in the end, if Lukashenko with all his army and all the police that he has is fighting against toys, he is looking ludicrous. That is what I wanted to achieve.

It's why the Swedes sent their teddy-bear paratroopers in the first place - as moral support for Belarussians brave enough to speak out...