Belarus’ top security agency — the KGB — has summoned a Swedish advertising team for questioning after the group air-dropped hundreds of parachute-wearing teddy bears that carried pro-human rights messages onto the soil of the authoritarian former Soviet state. The agency threatened the Swedes with fines or even jail time if they do not show up in 10 days.
The July 4 teddy bear drop by Studio Total infuriated Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, who fired two generals over it. It also may have added stress to already deteriorating diplomatic relations between Stockholm and Minsk. Earlier this month, Belarus effectively expelled Sweden’s ambassador and ordered the Nordic state to close its embassy.
The summons, signed by an investigator named P. Tsernavsky and posted on the KGB’s Web site on Saturday, said the agency was investigating the “criminal case” of the ad group’s “illegal crossing” into Belarussian airspace.
The KGB said it wanted the Swedes to participate in its “investigative actions” so it can clarify the role each person played and help it decide how to deal with two Belarussian men accused of aiding the Swedes. One of the Belarussian suspects, a journalism student, was arrested after he posted photographs of the teddy bears on his personal Web site; the other is a real-estate agent who is said to have offered the Swedes an apartment when they visited Belarus some time before the stunt.
If the Swedes do not show up within 10 days, the agency said they could face a fine or “correctional work for up to two years, or imprisonment for up to six months.”
Studio Total co-founder Tomas Mazetti, who piloted the plane in the teddy bear drop, said he received the summons via e-mail, and that it demanded he and two colleagues, Hannah Frey and Per Cromwell, appear.
It’s “a bit cute and tragic at the same time,” he said. “They just expect us to show up just because they say so.”
Mazetti said that the group wanted legal advice before deciding what to do, and that the team members would likely demand guarantees that they would not be detained if they showed up.
“We have nothing against helping them in their investigation to clarify just how we did it,” he said.
However, he added that the legal proceedings against the two Belarussians were “really sad” and had “no logic.”
He said political experts have warned that Lukashenko may be using the two Belarussians as pawns to force the Swedes to go to Minsk.
“It’s pure blackmail,” Mazetti said.
Studio Total has previously staged attention-grabbing campaigns by burning up stacks of cash and setting up a fake sex-school in Austria. Mazetti said it orchestrated the non-commercial air-drop of the 879 teddy bears to shine a light on Belarus’ poor record on human rights and freedom of speech and to embarrass its military, a pillar of Lukashenko’s power.
“That’s why we did it,” Mazetti said. “There are people jailed there just because they’ve said something.”
Lukashenko has ruled Belarus, a nation of 10 million, since 1994, repressing opposition groups and independent news media while preserving a quasi-Soviet economy with about 80 percent of industry in state hands. He has earned the nickname in the West of “Europe’s last dictator.”
Swedish-Belarussian relations have soured even more in the weeks since the teddy bear drop. Earlier this month, Belarus said it would not allow the Nordic country’s ambassador to Minsk to return to his mission. The Swedes reciprocated by barring entry to the new Belarussian ambassador to Stockholm and asking two junior Belarussian diplomats to leave the country. Lukashenko’s regime then ordered the Swedish embassy in Minsk to close. The US and the EU have expressed strong support for Sweden.