STOCKHOLM — Belarus' top security agency — the KGB — has summoned a Swedish ad team for questioning after the group air-dropped hundreds of parachute-wearing teddy bears that carried pro-human rights messages onto the soil of the authoritarian ex-Soviet state.
The agency threatens the Swedes with fines or even jail time if they don’t show up in 10 days.
The July 4 teddy bear drop by Studio Total infuriated Belarus’ autocratic President Alexander Lukashenko, who fired two generals over it. It also may have added stress to already deteriorating diplomatic relations between Stockholm and Minsk. Earlier this month, Belarus effectively expelled Sweden’s ambassador and ordered the Nordic state to close its embassy.
The summons, signed by an investigator named P. Tsernavsky and posted on the KGB’s website Saturday, says the agency is investigating the “criminal case” of the ad group’s “illegal crossing” into Belarusian airspace. The KGB said it wants the Swedes to participate in its “investigative actions” so it can clarify the role each person played and help it decide how to deal with two Belarusian men accused of aiding the Swedes.
One of the Belarusian suspects, a journalism student, was arrested after he posted photos of the teddy bears on his personal website; the other is a real estate agent who is said to have offered the Swedes an apartment when they visited Belarus some time before the stunt.
If the Swedes don’t show up within 10 days, the agency said they could face a fine or “correctional work for up to two years, or imprisonment for up to six months.”
Studio Total co-founder Thomas Mazetti, who piloted the plane in the teddy bear drop, said he received the summons via email, and that it demands he and two colleagues appear.
It’s “a bit cute and tragic at the same time,” he said. “They just expect us to show up just because they say so.”
Mazetti told The Associated Press that the group wants legal advice before deciding what to do, and that the team members would likely demand guarantees that they would not be detained if they showed up. “We have nothing against helping them in their investigation to clarify just how we did it,” he said.
Lukashenko has ruled Belarus, a nation of 10 million, since 1994, repressing opposition groups and independent news media while preserving a quasi-Soviet economy with about 80 percent of industry in state hands. He has earned the nickname in the West of “Europe’s last dictator.”
Swedish-Belarusian relations have soured even more in the weeks since the teddy bear drop.
Earlier this month, Belarus said it would not allow the Nordic country’s ambassador to Minsk to return to his mission. The Swedes reciprocated by barring entry to the new Belarusian ambassador to Stockholm and asking two junior Belarusian diplomats to leave the country. Lukashenko’s regime then ordered the Swedish embassy in Minsk to close.
The United States and the European Union have expressed strong support for Sweden in the dispute.
Swedish authorities have said Belarus is angry over Stockholm’s promotion of human rights. Although the teddy bear incident has not been cited as a reason for the embassy closure or the barring of Sweden’s envoy, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt has said it probably added to Lukashenko’s growing irritation with Stockholm.