Foreign Policy speaks with the Swedish activists who dropped a planeload of stuffed animals into Belarus, Europe's last dictatorship.
On Tuesday, Belarus’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, fired two of his top generals after a single-engine airplane piloted by two Swedish advertising executives managed to breach the country’s air defenses and bombarded the suburbs of Minsk with teddy bears carrying messages in support of free speech.
Lukashenko — better known as Europe’s last dictator — presides over an increasingly brittle police state and has managed to tenaciously cling to power, in no small measure because of the blessing of his Kremlin backers. But the teddy-bear stunt, pulled off by the Swedish advertising agency Studio Total, has proved embarrassing for a ruler who once boasted his people want him to return his country to a Stalinist regime.
For the Swedes, the aerial bombardment is the latest in a string of high-profile "campaigns" carried out by the agency. In June of 2010, Studio Total organized an event in which the leader of the Swedish political party Feminist Initiative burned 100,000 kronor (about $15,000) in a bid to draw attention to the income gap between men and women in Sweden. Last year, the company staged a fake press conference that fooled the international media into falsely reporting the opening of an Austrian sex school devoted to making its students better lovers.
Breaking international law and breaching the air defenses of Europe’s last remaining authoritarian state, then, would seem to be the natural next step for an ad agency whose outrageous stunts are matched only by the headlines they generate. Here, Foreign Policy talks to the two Swedes who piloted the plane, Tomas Mazetti and Hannah Frey, about their dangerous mission, the importance of laughing at dictators, and the difference between propaganda and art.
The interview was conducted in Swedish and has been translated, edited, and condensed for clarity.
Foreign Policy: On your website, you write that "a dictator can be hated, despised, or feared. The only thing he cannot survive is being laughed at." Is that what the teddy bear bombing campaign was about?
Hannah Frey: Most importantly, we want to bring attention to the lack of freedom of expression in Belarus.
Thomas Mazetti: I would say there are two goals here. In Belarus we think that it is important to have a campaign that makes people laugh. The people in Belarus know that their leader is this frightening, imposing man — they don’t need to be told this — but our campaign is putting the regime in a new light. It is clear when one visits that Lukashenko has a great deal of respect among his people. This comes in part from his use of these methods, like repressing free speech, despite the fact that the European Union has denounced him and so on.
The second part is that we managed to fly through his air defenses without any problems. That exposes a clear weakness.
FP: So a campaign of laughter is the way to bring down a dictator?
TM: There are few examples in history of forcing a dictator to step down through money or weapons alone, and of course one should protest his actions. But a campaign using teddy bears has been received warmly in Belarus, and many people think that it’s very funny.
HF: The idea to use the teddy-bear grams was not ours. It originated with an opposition group in Belarus called Speak the Truth. They used teddy bears to spread their message. After we decided to carry out some sort of protest, we saw what they had done, and that’s how we arrived at using the teddy bears.
FP: When I first heard about this, I thought to myself, ‘Well that’s completely absurd.’ But is that the point — to get people to focus on recognizing the absurdity in all of this?
TM: Well, what you might call absurd, you can also call humor. Or, from another perspective, the United States has spent an incredible amount of money in Afghanistan on a campaign that has tried to bomb the country into submission. Here, we are trying something else.
HF: What is absurd here is that we did this with a propeller airplane.
TM: Yes, exactly — that we did this.
FP: And how did you come up with the idea of using the plane?
TM: There are many examples throughout history of people using airplanes in campaigns like these. The most famous is Matthias Rust, who landed a propeller plane in Red Square in Moscow. But also, as soon as one uses an airplane, it’s guaranteed to get attention and publicity.
After Sept. 11 and the many subsequent bombing campaigns, the airplane has become a sort of evil symbol. We wanted to make it something nice, loving, and peaceful.
Lukashenko’s actions [after the teddy bear bombing] have been very irrational, and the situation is not good for him right now. Now the people have picked up on this. For example, people are now giving teddy bears as wedding presents and symbols of opposition.
HF: This creates a pretty awkward situation for the police, as they can’t very well go ripping teddy bears out of peoples’ hands. In this way it becomes a very powerful symbol.
FP: You’ve said repeatedly that you did not have any contact with activists in Belarus prior to staging the ‘bombing campaign,’ but did you get a reaction afterwards?
HF: We haven’t had any contact whatsoever.
TM: We don’t even answer email, as we don’t want to unintentionally implicate anyone. The authorities in Belarus have already arrested a journalist and a man whom one of our associates was supposed to rent an apartment from.
FP: What kind of consequences were you expecting?
TM: It was not possible to anticipate consequences, but we thought that a lot would happen as a result of this. We did not know if our plane would be forced down or what the consequences would be for our company. But we did not expect that people in Belarus would be picking up these teddy bears, which has been wonderful, and, I think, the best part of it for us.
FP: Not long ago — in 1995, in fact — a hot-air balloon that strayed into Belorussian airspace was shot down and two people were killed. Didn’t this worry you?
HF: Well, the hot-air balloon that was shot down did not have a radio. So we thought that they at least would not immediately shoot us down.
TM: The day we did it was the day after their independence-day celebrations, when they take all of their military hardware and parade it through the streets. Afterwards, the military guys all get together and throw a big party. So we thought if we did it early on the morning after independence day, the military would not exactly be in peak condition. But I have the feeling that a lot of armies — both in the West and the East — have a hard time countering the threat of a small, single engine airplane. Still, when you’re up there bouncing around in that little plane, it’s not exactly a comforting thought.
FP: Do you look at what you’re doing as art?
TM: No, not at all. People can go ahead and call it that, but we don’t see it as art. The purpose here is to gain attention. Art is more about asking questions to which there are no clear answers. If anything, what we are doing is propaganda. Art can be seen as an alternative medium to communicating a message, but this is not what we are doing. We have a very clear message in mind.
HF: I agree, but I suppose I’d still rather see it as art rather than propaganda.
FP: It seems like a whole crop of absurdist protest groups have emerged across Europe — groups like Femen in Ukraine, similar groups in Russia like Pussy Riot — do you see yourselves as part of a broader movement?
TM: I don’t know about Pussy Riot — they seem like pretty classic counterculture. We are about creative protests, and I’m honored to be potentially grouped with them. Still, we are not the flying peace bears.
HF: Not yet, anyway. We’ll see.
FP: Still, is it not a bit problematic for a Swedish advertising agency to be getting involved in protests like these? Don’t you risk having your actions interpreted as a big PR stunt for your company?
TM: In Sweden, many people undoubtedly feel this way, but in Belarus it is different. If you’re sitting in jail in Belarus you don’t care about the motives of the person who is trying to help you. What matters is that they are trying to help.
HF: If there is something that we would like to get out it’s that everyone — including companies — can put their money into something good.
TM: This campaign will help us in the long run, but we lost money on it, of course. And it was also dangerous. I do not know that I would recommend that other companies do the same thing.
There are many things in this world that I’m not at all sure about — socialism and capitalism, for example. But one of the few things that I am absolutely sure about is that it is wrong to throw someone in jail for writing a poem. I think that using humor as a weapon against dictators is something that should be recommended to those with fewer resources. If the American government, for example, had been able to get Afghanistan to laugh at the Taliban, they probably would have saved a lot of money and a lot of lives.