Alexander Lukashenko’s Flying Circus
On July 4th Tomas Mazetti and Hannah Lina Frey from the Studio Total flew a small plane over the territory of eastern Belarus, dropping around 800 teddy bears carrying messages in support of freedom of speech in the country.
The plane took off from a small airport in Lithuania and after flying over the territory of Belarus for about an hour and a half, flew back and landed in Sweden. Per Cromwell, another person from the Swedish team, situated in the small Belarusian town of Ivaniets, filmed part of their flight from the ground, returning to Stockholm the very same morning.
This short and simple stunt put the country’s officials in a state of agony. With the perspective of two months, however, Minsk’s reaction to the teddy bear bombing might best be described through the Five Stages of Grieving model, introduced by Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969.
Stage One. Denial.
At first, Belarusian officials just pretended it hadn’t happen. The films of the plane dropping bears over the small town of Ivaniets, recorded by Per Cromwell, another member of the Swedish team, were referred to in the official media as “photoshop and skillful video cutting”. However, after Anton Surapin published the photos of the bears on his website (www.bnp.by), the KGB quietly arrested him, along with Siarhei Basharymau, a real estate agent who rented the Swedes the apartment during their preliminary visit to Minsk in May 2012. Alexander Lukashenko, usually so outspoken and quick to blame, kept silent for as long as three weeks.
Stage Two. Anger.
Three weeks after the incident, Lukashenko finally spoke up. His speech was a collection of angry, contradictory statements. His actions, however, were clear and concrete, firing the Chief of the State Border Control and the Chief Commander of Air and Ground Defence, and reprimanding four more high-rank military officials.
In his fury, the president also turned to the Swedish Embassy and kicked Ambassador Stefan Eriksson out of the country. The Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared that it was closing down the Belarusian Embassy in Stockholm, and suggested the Swedes to do the same.
Stage Three. Bargaining.
After the initial outburst of anger, officials in Minsk started pretentious negotiations with the world and the Belarusian community. They justified the diplomatic scandal through the expiration of the Swedish Ambassador’s term of service, being in no way connected to the incident of the flying bears. In a later comment, Lukashenko even mentioned EU Commissioner Stefan Füle and some obscure Brussels agreement on the change in ambassador to back up his actions.
Minsk also requested legal help from Sweden and Lithuania to help them solve the crime of the illegal violation of the border. In doing so, the regime was trying to present its previously hysteric actions as an emotional reaction to a legal case, being perfectly within international norms.
State Four. Depression.
During this stage, a person grieves and gets used to the thought of their fate; and this is what Lukashenko’s regime is currently going through. Random contradictory comments sometimes appear on the state media. The EU ambassadors have not come back from their holidays yet, so there is no one with which to debate the situation at a diplomatic level.
After a month and a half in detention, Anton Surapin and Siarhei Basharymau were released on bail, although they are still charged with violating the Criminal Code. In what could perhaps be called an act of desperation, the KGB published a letter written to the Swedish government, requesting their presence in Belarus to proceed with the criminal case of the illegal violation of the border.
The Swedes replied in a playful manner, stating that it was Lukashenko who needed to come to Sweden, not them to Belarus, and even offered to pay for all of his expenses, including his “travel, hotel and taxis”. There was no better way to send Lukashenko deeper into depression, and knowing his fear of satirical weapons, the collateral damage to the dictator’s all-powerful mystique is difficult to overestimate.
Lukashenko’s current version of the events holds that kind Belarusian officers noticed the plane, but took no action in order spare the lives of the two Swedes. In 1995, however, Belarusian officials acted very differently, firing a missile into a hot air balloon, killing its two pilots. It is hard to believe that they have learnt how to be merciful since then.
Stage Five. Acceptance.
The study of these five stages of grief was based on the observation of terminally ill people. Following this analogy, the fifth stage hasn’t yet been observed. Ms Kubler-Ross has suggested that in most, although not neccessarily all, cases patients go through all of the stages. We, therefore, may never witness the stage where a person, in this case Lukashenko, comes to embrace and accept his loss, his mistake or his end. However, the case of the flying bears, and especially the incoherent and indecisive reaction to it, indicates how unstable, out-dated and out of order Lukashenko’s regime is.
It is no longer a matter of Lukashenko recognising his future loss and accepting it, but simply a matter of time before the changes actually happen. How long will it take? Another story comes to mind: that of Macias Rust, the German pilot who landed in Red Square in 1987, in a small plane carrying a message of peace to the USSR. The fall of the Soviet Union came four years later. Could this period of time be about the same for Lukashenko?
Katerina Barushka works for the independent Belarusian TV channel, Belsat, covering political and social issues in Belarus, and international affairs. She has also been working in the Belarusian NGO sector for the past ten years, dealing with international affairs and youth activism in Belarus.