Two Swedish pilots who carried out a teddy-bear assault on Belarus have been requested by the country’s officials to return to Minsk as suspects in a criminal probe. The fate of two arrested Belarusians depends on their showing up, authorities add.
In July, two Swedes flying a small plane discharged a teddy-bear bombardment on Belarus. Hundreds of plush provocateurs were parachuted down with “Support freedom of speech!” messages as the plane was flying over the capital, Minsk.
Belarus' KGB has detained and charged two Belarusian nationals over the teddy-bear "invasion". The two are accused of aiding foreigners to violate the country’s border.
One of the detained men is journalist Anton Suryapin, who was the first in Belarus to report the landing plush troops. The other one, Sergey Bashamirov, was put in custody on the suspicion that he let the two Swedes an apartment while they were planning their operation.
“The Swedish nationals who organized and carried out the operation are invited to come to Minsk to take part in the investigation as suspects,” the KGB press service said on Tuesday, adding the court would use the evidence provided to make a final decision on Suryapin’s and Bashamirov’s destinies.
If convicted, the two Belarusians may face up to seven years in prison and may be also deprived of property.
“It looks like Suryapin and Bashamirov have simply been taken hostage,” Victor Demidov, a political scientist in Belarus, tells Novaya Gazeta. “The KGB makes a condition: if the Swedish pilots do not turn up for the interview, two Belarusian students will get jail terms. Though it is understood already that the latter two have nothing to do with the incident.”
Belarus’s KGB has not yet contacted "the organizers and performers" of the teddy bear bombardment in person, says the owner of the Swedish advertisement agency, Studio Total, which orchestrated the stunt.
“We need an official invitation sent via the post office; a statement on a website is not enough,” Per Cromwell told Belarusian news agency BelaPAN. “These are the conditions: an official invitation and, of course, immunity, a guarantee we won’t be charged when we arrive in Belarus.”
Cromwell is sure that Belarus considers them offenders, but he is unsure whether the KGB can punish them in any way on Swedish soil.
“What we have managed is that public awareness of the state of affairs in Belarus has skyrocketed. Hundreds, thousands, of news articles have emerged,” says Cromwell. The owner of the PR company admits, however, that he does not know what his Foreign Ministry thinks of the operation.
Swedish media say the plane entered Belarusian airspace from Lithuania and as the cargo was emptied, the pilots simply turned around and flew to Sweden. This meant an unauthorized, but still safe, 90-minute journey for the two pilots.
The incident was first shrugged off by the country’s authorities as a foreign propaganda stunt, but eventually led to resignation of Belarus’ top brass. Soon after it, the stunt snowballed into a full-scale diplomatic row.
At first Minsk chose not to prolong the accreditation of the Swedish ambassador to Belarus, with Stockholm in return expelling two Belarusian top diplomats. Now Belarus, frustrated by the asymmetric reaction, is closing its embassy in Stockholm and has told the EU country that it has until August 30 to recall its entire diplomatic staff from Minsk.