In an audacious protest on 4th July this year, 800 teddy bears carrying pro-democracy messages were dropped from a light plane into Belarus. The cute, cuddly toys generated international headlines, caused a diplomatic row between Sweden and Belarus, and saw two senior Belarussian officials sacked.
On Tuesday, Dateline video journalist Amos Roberts uncovers the story behind the unorthodox protest, and why the Belarus government attempted to cover it up. He travels to Sweden to meet the people responsible, finding out exactly how the provocative stunt was undertaken, and reports on the fall-out on the ground in Belarus, dubbed Europe’s last remaining dictatorship.
After filming his story, Roberts was detained at the airport when departing Belarus. All of his camera equipment was confiscated by the authorities in an incident he describes as “a bizarre taste of the Cold War in modern Europe”, that was also reported around the world.
Per Cromwell, co-founder of the Swedish advertising agency behind the protest tells Roberts that he was eager to draw attention to the situation in Belarus, where those who oppose the Soviet-style regime and its President, Alexander Lukashenko, can be thrown into prison.
“People seem to be more interested in speaking about Kim Kardashian than the situation in Belarus, so we thought we needed to do something about it. It’s just too close and too bad to leave it alone,” Cromwell tells Dateline.
“Fun and laughter kill fear,” Pavel Vinogradav, the Belarussian activist who inspired the stunt and has been jailed seven times this year alone for speaking out against the government, tells Roberts.
Vinogradav used stuffed toys in a protest against laws banning demonstrations in Belarus earlier this year. Roberts meets him as he prepares for another protest held a few days before the country’s parliamentary elections.
“I’m provoking the authorities to behave in a crazy, unreasonable way and I want them look absurd. So in the end, if Lukashenko with all his army and all his police is fighting against stuffed toys, he’s looking ludicrous and that’s what I wanted to achieve,” he continues.
For three weeks after the teddy bear drop, President Lukashenko denied it had even taken place. He eventually fired two of his top military brass for their failure to stop the ‘invasion’ of parachuting teddy bears, before throwing out all Swedish diplomats from Belarus and recalling its ambassador and embassy staff from Sweden.
9:30pm Tuesday SBS ONE