On August 3, Belarusian television stations explained why the Belarusian authorities have refused to extend the accreditation of Swedish Ambassador Stefan Eriksson. On the program Panarama, Syarhey Husachenka stated first that it was a routine matter, and the Swedish ambassador had already spent a long time in Belarus (he arrived in 2005), but then claimed that Eriksson had tried to do harm to Belarus, had engaged in subversive activity, and had given instructions and money to opposition groups seeking to carry out a coup on the eve of the 2010 presidential elections (Charter97.org, August 4). Two other Swedish diplomats were reportedly also asked to leave Minsk (RT, August 3).
Understandably, Sweden has responded with anger. Foreign Minister Carl Bildt maintained that the regime of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka “has seriously violated the standards of international relations” (Belorusskiy Partizan, August 4). Sweden would expel two Belarusian diplomats and the new Belarusian ambassador “would not be welcome” in Sweden (UKPA, August 3). In a letter to Radio Svaboda, Ambassador Eriksson wrote that he loved his job and had tried to carry out his duties honestly (Nasha Niva, August 5).
The expulsion of Eriksson comes a month after a Swedish public relations firm, Studio Total, which specializes in revolutionary advertisements, dispatched a small plane from Lithuania that dropped 789 teddy bears into the town of Ivyanets, in the Valozhyn district of Minsk Voblast. The stunt, designed to focus more attention on press freedom and civil violations in Belarus, has led to the dismissals of Major-General Ihar Rachkouski, Chairman of the State Border Committee, and Dzmitry Pahmelkin, Commander of the Air Force and the Air Defense Troops of the Belarusian Armed Forces, and reprimands for incompetence to Defense Minister Lieutenant-General Yuri Zhadobin, First Deputy Minister Piotr Tikhonouski, State Secretary of Security Leanid Maltsev, and Chairman of State Security (KGB) Vadim Zaitseu (president.gov.by, July 31).
Although there was no immediate official reaction to the penetration of Belarusian air space, the incident was publicized over the Internet by 20-year old photojournalist Anton Suryapin, who was arrested on July 13 and remains in prison without being formally charged. He faces a potential prison sentence of seven years for his role in “assisting” an illegal border crossing (Committee to Protect Journalists, July 18). Founder of Studio Total, Per Cromwell, has confirmed that neither Suryapin nor Ambassador Eriksson had been alerted beforehand to the plan ([email protected], July 19; RIA Novosti, August 3).
The question is why did the Belarusian President, a man noted for his skill in diplomatic maneuvers against his perceived enemies, react with such fury to the publicity stunt? Why was it necessary to arrest an innocent blogger and remove the Swedish ambassador? As former chairman of the parliament Stanislau Shushkevich remarked, even the USSR had taken no such actions after the 1987 incident when 19-year old German pilot Matthias Rust landed his Cessna in Red Square (Narodnaya Volya, August 4). There are several likely reasons.
First, the stunt was a major embarrassment to the Belarusian authorities. The Lukashenka regime has made much publicity over the guarding of its borders, especially on occasions commemorating the “Great Patriotic War.” The President insisted that his prime concern was the safety of citizens and maintained that the plane had been detected immediately, but asked: “Why was it not stopped?” He may have also been provoked by the open and unedited letter addressed to him by Cromwell, which included the statement: “On the internet, you are regarded as a clown” and that in preparing the mission, it was easy to ascertain the necessary information about Belarusian air defense on Wikipedia, and that the description was invariably the same in all places: “a brutal, but severely malfunctioning mechanism, best suited for parades and for harassing civilians” ([email protected], July 19).
Under the mantle of the CSTO, Belarus is currently installing a joint air defense system with Russia and Kazakhstan that is intended to be in place by 2013. According to a Russian source, it will receive an S-300 system intended originally for Iran. In early July, Russian Deputy Air Force Commander Pavel Kurachko commented that Russia and Belarus had ratified the agreement and were discussing troops’ command personnel (RT, July 11; Pravda.ru, July 12). Obviously it is not yet in operation and Belarus has suffered a psychological setback.
Second, embarrassing the Belarusian leadership may have been a goal of the mission, but another consequence of it may have been accidental. More likely, the aim was to drop the teddy bears in Minsk, 40 miles further east of where they landed. Ivanyets (Iwaniec), together with the surrounding villages, is one of the few towns in Belarus with a predominantly ethnic Polish population. In February 2010, it was the site of an “unauthorized” meeting of the independent Union of Poles, which was interrupted by intruding militia, who subsequently seized the Polish House (see EDM, February 19, 2010). The teddy bear drop thus may have reignited an issue that has been relatively dormant since the official crackdown and establishment of an alternative Union of Poles more amenable to the authorities.
Third, Lukashenka takes pride in safeguarding the borders as a former border guard himself. His two elder sons, Viktor and Dzmitry, have also served in this position. While appointing Rachkouski’s successor, Alyaksandr Baechka, Lukashenka lamented that border guards had been preoccupied with political issues rather than the fundamental matter of guarding the border, and that the State Border Committee was responsible for this change in priorities (BELTA, August 2). Over a year ago, Rachkouski was advocating a visa-free regime with the European Union and ways to prevent long lines at border crossings (BELTA, April 7, 2011).
Lastly, the decision to curtail the accreditation of Ambassador Eriksson may only be partially related to the teddy bear drop. More likely, it proved expedient to use the incident as a means to remove a figure who was very much at home in Belarus, spoke Belarusian fluently and had emerged as a major public figure. The Swedish Embassy in Minsk has been open less than four years and one of its stated missions was to increase contacts with Belarusian society as well as with the authorities (http://www.regeringen.se/sb/d/10165/a/107131). Sweden was the prime initiator, along with Poland, of Belarusian participation in the Eastern Partnership Project in 2008.
The accusations of Eriksson being a spy, as Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt has stated (UKPA, August 3), are ridiculous. And the official response to the teddy bear drop is, by any standards, an overreaction. But the response is a sign not only of the Belarusian President’s discomfiture, but also of the regime’s weakness and insecurity rather than a signal that a new round of repressions is about to begin.