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Belarus in a stir as teddy bears fall from the sky

A teddy bear invasion by a Swedish advertising company demanding free speech in Belarus caused a stir in the country - the authorities wanted to keep it a secret. DW spoke to one of the pilots about the stunt.

DW: Back in July, you and a colleague flew a light plane over Belarus and dropped 1,000 teddy bears onto the country. Now they were all wearing signs calling for freedom and human rights. First of all, how on earth did you come up with this idea?

Tomas Mazetti: The idea with teddy bears was actually a response to a campaign carried out by opposition groups in Belarus fighting for free speech. They had been arrested so many times when protesting for the rights of freedom of speech that they put out teddy bears with signs saying 'We demand freedom of speech in Belarus' and those teddy bears were gathered by the police. And a lot of people found that very funny in a sad sort of way. And our campaign was a support for that: we flew in teddy bears and airdropped them to support those arrested teddy bears.

And for how long were you planning this trip?

It was crazy, for almost over one and a half years. We needed to know everything about Belarus and airports and we had to learn how to fly an airplane. We had to finalize the idea and get the 1,000 teddy bears dressed in little hats. There are many details to a campaign like this.

Tomas Mazetti in cockpit (photo: Studio Total)

Mazetti flew the plane to Minsk where they dropped the bears

So you actually learned to fly so you could airdrop these teddy bears into Belarus?

Yes, it sounds crazy. But we tried to put everything into our campaign.

So where did you actually drop these teddy bears?

We dropped them mainly over two places: a small village to the south-west of Minsk called Ivyanets and then we dropped them over Minsk.

Now this was quite a dangerous stunt. I mean weren't you worried about the risks of getting caught or crashing or even shot down?

Two days before, we heard about some American pilots in a hot air balloon that drifted over the border and were shot down. That [certaintly] didn't make us calmer. Yes, we were aware of the risks, but at the same time we thought that was necessary for the campaign. I mean people risk their lives everyday doing - I don't know - white water rafting or something. It's actually not more dangerous than that.

Where did you get the money from to fund the trip?

We are an advertising company - we charge ludicrous amounts of money for helping global brands to get attention. We used the money we earned from that.

Did you have any sponsors for the trip?

No. I think our profit for last year - we are only four people, but our profit was like 200,000 euros ($245,000). We took that money and used it for our campaign.

Two teddy bears with signs reading Free Speech Now in trees (photo: Studio Total)

The teddy bears were airdropped in July, but the Belarus' authorities wanted to keep the incident a secret

Now the Belarusian authorities initially tried to keep the whole incident a secret. But news did get out about it. And now President Lukashenko has sacked two of his top generals because of a lapse of security. Has that given you a sense of achievement?

Of course, it's very important that they recognize it. And second of all, it's very good that the action did sort of panic, attack the military bosses which are actually quite innocent in this. It was Lukashenko himself who ordered the defense.

Have you managed to find out how ordinary Belarusians have reacted to the teddy bear mission?

There are hundreds of videos on youtube with people doing things with teddy bears like [having] them at their weddings, and singing for them. Appearently you can buy these teddy bears in Belarus.

And we've received thousands of emails and messages in various forms from people saying that they thank us basically and they are very happy that we support them. But on the other hand, we did not just support them, it was them who inspired us. So yes, we are happy about that.

On a less positive note, two Belarusian students were arrested after the airdrop on suspicion of having been involved with the stunt. How concerned are you about what will happen to them?

It was one journalist who was also a student. The other one was a guy who was to rent an apartment to us. And of course it's extremely sad. In the first case, the journalist, did nothing but to publish pictures of one of the bears that we dropped. We had had no contact with him whatsoever. So I expect him to be released in the next few days. It's really a sad story which only goes to show how the situation is in Belarus. The other guy had absolutely nothing to do with us either, except that he was to rent us an apartment.

I think that the KGB - that is the state security police of Belarus - was acting out in panic. They had no idea what to do so they have struck on those two innocent people.

Two women and teddy bears (photo: Studio Total)

Studio Total wanted to draw attention to Belarus' poor human rights record

There's no doubt it was an incredibly original and daring stunt, but are you really hopeful it will lead to any real changes in Belarus?

Yes, we hope this can be a part of the long struggle for free speech. Our campaign is one of many many many small parts in the campaign for free speech. We are building on what the first protesters with the plush rebellion did. We can inspire other people to continue what we did and then we can help again to do new things. And altogether, I think actually the tide is turning. Lukashenko is obviously in panic, arresting innocent students. And so many people are protesting, more and more every day. I think he's in real trouble.

Any news what happened to all these teddy bears?

They are buying them in Belarus for $300! But the rumors are that from the beginning it was the KGB who wanted them to get them off the streets to make sure that the incident never happened. But I hope that some children do have them in Belarus.

So most of them have obviously been imprisoned as well?

That is the sad truth. There was a small police station in a village which an old woman had been called to as she said she saw a big heap of hundreds of teddy bears that must have been gathered by the police in the early morning.

Tomas Mazetti is the co-founder of the Swedish company Studio Total, an advertising company responsible for the airdrop of teddy bears in Belarus.

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