The Teddy Bears no picnic in Belarus…
879 stuffed emissaries of peace fell from the sky over Belarus on July 4, 2012, dropped from a single-engine plane, bearing the message”We support the Belarusan struggle for free speech.”
Studio Total, a Swedish advertising agency, sponsored the event, which generated arrests and diplomatic ejection from within Belarus and a great deal of anger and (what looked to the West) like overreaction from dictator Aleksander Lukashenko.
The event continued in September and October to ruffle feathers and make news.
In early September, the Independent reported that Lukashenko fired the chief of his air force and border guard patrol; shut down the Swedish Embassy in the country and kicked out the ambassador; and just last week fired his long-serving foreign minister. The student photographer and editor who were arrested served 21 days in prison for their “crime” but are now under house arrest.
Anton Surapin and Andrzej Poczobut comment on their situation…
Interviews from a political news source, Freedom for all Political Prisoners:
Surapin: “At the moment I am still a student. But my work experience should already begun – from now on I should work in the editorial portal TUT.BY. But, to do so I would have to
move to Minsk. If I found an apartment to rent the authorities would change the address on the ban on leaving the place of residence. So that the travel ban should concern Minsk. But it is very hard to find an apartment now. Because when there was a good time to look, I was sitting in jail, now there are very few opportunities for students to rent an apartment. So far, I have not found any possibility, although I have been looking for some time now,” (Surapin is under house arrest.)
Poczobut: “For a journalist a ban on leaving the place of residence is a significant limitation. There is no way out, to make a reportage or visit places where given events took place. Of course, this limits my work possibilities. Theoretically, one can ask the investigator to obtain permission to leave. But I think it is understandable that such a precaution is used for a specific purpose, not related to the criminal case, but rather with my professional duties. Therefore, counting on the fact that investigators agree for my business trip would be naive. It is a very unpleasant situation, but what do when we live in such a country.” (He is under house arrest and now facing the possibility of an actual jail sentence of up to five years in prison.)
(Surapin wasn’t alone in his protest. On September 8, “photographer Yuliya Darashkevich of the online newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda v Belarussii and colleague Iryna Kozlik, were arrested yesterday in Minsk while demonstrating their support for Anton Surapin, the journalist who has been held for nearly a month in connection with the teddy bear airdrop.
Detained while being photographed holding a teddy bear with a political slogan, they were taken to a police station and placed in custody on a charge of organizing an unauthorized demonstration.”
It’s all about the teddy bears… not.
The bears are symbolic; the results of standing up to repression are harshly real.
Not much more news about the bears, but we can only hope they have been more protected than the citizens of Belarus. Here’s the latest report from Chapter 97 about Andrei Sannikau, a leader for democratic rights asking for political asylum in Britain:
“The leader of European Belarus civic campaign, former presidential candidate and political prisoner claimed there was a threat of a rearrest.
“It was not an easy decision for me. But believe me I did not have any other choice. Either to go under tortures and humiliation in prison again, or to sit there silently meek and mild. I was and remain a Belarusian politician. I will keep communicating the truth about their country and seek for concrete measure to be taken to help democratic Belarus. I believe that my decision will help release my wife and son, who are hostages of the Lukashenka regime.”
Andrei Sannikau – former presidential candidate in Belarus in 2010 elections, the leader of the European Belarus civic campaign, former deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Belarus. According to the estimation of independent observers, in the presidential elections he was a serious competition to Lukashenka and was making it to the second round. On the day of the election he was arrested together with his wife Iryna Khalip and accused of organizing the protest action against rigged elections, then sentenced to five years in prison. In KGB prison and later in penal colonies he underwent tortures. He was released in April 2012. After the first Sannikau press-conference after having been released Lukashenka publicly threatened the politician with a rearrest in the case he won’t be silent.”
Leadership. Within a democracy, it’s something we can discuss, debate, dream about. Within a dictatorship, it is not to be questioned, challenged or even constructed by followers. Sometimes it takes a teddy bear to catch the attention of the privileged, and remind us that in a repressive regime, even the most seemingly light-hearted act, or the simplest question, can be dangerous.