MINSK - Belarus police arrested two journalists for posing for photographs holding teddy bears after hundreds were dropped by air on the country in a pro-democracy stunt that embarrassed authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko.
One of the two, Irina Kozlik, who works for Komsomolskaya
Pravda newspaper, was fined 3 million Belarussian roubles (about
$400) by a Minsk court on Thursday, while Yulia Doroshkevich, a
press photographer, was to appear in court later in the day.
An official for the ex-Soviet republic’s journalist
association said on Thursday that Kozlik, 27, and Doroshkevich,
31, were detained on Wednesday evening in the capital Minsk.
They were accused of “carrying out an unsanctioned protest,”
deputy association head Andrei Bastunets told Reuters. “This the
fine) shows that Kozlik was recognised as guilty of violating
laws on protest.”
The July 4 escapade, in which a light aircraft chartered by
a Swedish PR firm dropped 800 toy bears carrying pro-democracy
messages over Belarussian territory, prompted Lukashenko to sack
his air defence and border guards chiefs and expel Sweden’s
The teddy bear “blitz” marked the latest pro-democracy stunt
aimed at mocking Lukashenko’s iron grip on the country he has
ruled since 1994, three years after the Soviet Union’s break-up.
Once described as Europe’s last dictator by the U.S.
administration of George W. Bush, Lukashenko has been ostracised
by the European Union and United States over a harsh crackdown
on opponents who challenged his re-election in December 2010.
Last summer, dissident groups staged waves of “silent”
protests in Minsk in which people engaged in synchronised public
clapping and coordinated their mobile phones to ring out in
unison to show their disapproval of Lukashenko’s style of rule.
With both Belarus and Sweden now pulling all their diplomats
out of each other’s country, the diplomatic rift has worsened
Belarus’s already poor relations with the West.
In a statement on Thursday, the U.S. State Department said
the expulsion of Swedish diplomats only served “to deepen
Belarus’ self-isolation … We again call on Belarus to
immediately release and rehabilitate all political prisoners,
and to put an end to the repression of civil society and the
It took more than three weeks for Belarus to formally
confirm the teddy bear air drop. It was all the more
embarrassing for Lukashenko and his defence brass since the
incident occurred a day after Independence Day, which also marks
Minsk’s World War Two defence against Nazi Germany.
He sacked two generals, including the head of the air
defences, and told the incoming border guards chief to use
weapons if necessary to shoot down any future foreign intruders
into Belarussian air space.
Belarus’s KGB state security agency has since charged two
Belarussians, Anton Suryapin and Sergei Basharimov, with
complicity in the “illegal intrusion” by the Swedish plane.
Suryapin, who is aged about 20, had earlier been identified
as a blogger who was arrested after the first photographs of the
toy bears were published on the Internet. In the past week, some
Belarussian journalists have shown solidarity with Suryapin by
posing for photos on the Internet holding miniature toy bears.