In the past few weeks, the Belarusian dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, has fired the chief of his air force and border patrol; shut down the Swedish Embassy and kicked out the ambassador; and last week fired his foreign minister. The reason? Teddy bears.

In early July, Tomas Mazetti, a marketing executive with the Swedish firm Studio Total, took off in a single-engine propeller plane from Lithuania, donned a bear mask, and headed for Belarus. Once inside, he released his cargo: several hundred teddy bears carrying slogans calling for democracy and increased freedom of expression.

Initially, the Belarus authorities denied it had ever happened, but when photos started appearing online, all hell broke loose. "Was this the stupidity of specific actors or systemic mistakes in the defence of the airspace?" Lukashenko raged at his security chiefs, demanding to know why the plane had not been shot down.

Perhaps the most disturbing victims of the stunt are two locals who appear to have had very little to do with it. Anton Suryapin, a 20-year-old photographer who had started his own news agency, was sent photographs of the teddy bears landing and published them on his website.


They sparked lots of discussion online, but nothing more happened for more than a week. Then on July 13, the police and KGB arrived at his apartment. They searched the place for evidence that Suryapin had been personally involved in the drop, and whisked him off to the infamous Amerikanka prison, where he spent the next month.

He was charged under Article 371 of the Belarus criminal code, "illegal crossing of the state boundary".

"I am a quiet, peaceful person," said Suryapin, who was released two weeks ago and banned from leaving the small town of Slutsk. "I am not political, I just want to do independent journalism, as much as that is possible in Belarus."

Suryapin says he knew when he posted the photographs that it would be a scandal, but he did not imagine that he would be arrested. "I had the first pictures, and it was my duty as a journalist to publish them. I had no contact with these Swedes or with any other Swedes."

Sergei Basharimov, an estate agent, was jailed for renting an apartment in Minsk to Studio Total. Mazetti says he did not tell either of the arrested men, or any Belarusians, about his plans. Both have been released, but could still be jailed for up to seven years.

The KGB has demanded that Mazetti and his colleagues appear in Minsk for questioning, a request that was met with ridicule, in an open letter in which they called Lukashenko an "armed clown".

While some in the Belarusian opposition think it was a good way to show up the absurdity of Lukashenko's regime, not everyone was impressed.

Alexander Feduta, a political analyst who spent part of last year in jail for backing a rival candidate to Lukashenko in 2010, said: "It's a phenomenal example of idiocy, and they are lucky they didn't get shot down and killed."

Mazetti said the response from Lukashenko shows he is rattled.

"Lukashenko is starting to behave irrationally. When a dictator starts doing this, as we've seen this year in lots of other countries across the world, the only way is downhill. It's only a matter of time."

- Independent