Beware of the Teddy Bear!

Who’s the cuddliest/the scariest?

With the Northern summer came the Olympics and… Belarus. Indeed, the ‘last dictatorship in Europe’ made international headlines several times. While Nadzeya Ostapchuk’s gold medal and her subsequent disqualification on doping grounds probably helped most New Zealanders put the ‘last European dictatorship’ on a map, with Ms Ostapchuk’s downfall pointing to a national performance-enhancing system that recalls Cold War practices, Belarus was and still is in the news following the ‘teddyrist’ attacks that the country suffered on the 4th of July.

Since the terrible ‘teddy bear bombings’(as the event was dubbed by international media), the Belarusian regime expelled all Swedish diplomats from Minsk and removed its own from Stockholm. Organised by a Swedish public relations firm, the stunt, which consisted in the air-dropping of 879 pro-democratic teddies (freedom fighters?) by a small airplane that flew via Lithuania, escalated into a diplomatic row between Belarus, Sweden, and Lithuania, and damaged already strained relations between Minsk and the European Union (the EU has long criticized Lukashenko’s policies and has imposed travel bans and asset freezes on him and other senior officials). An emergency meeting of the EU Political and Security Committee was held on the 10th of August, but the European Union shied away from a mooted mass diplomatic withdrawal. It did say however that it would send a ‘very clear message’ to Minsk.

As with every bombings there were casualties: The ‘last dictator of Europe’ Alexander Lukashenko fired the nation’s air defence chief, the head of the Border Guards service, and lately his foreign minister. Belarusian authorities also arrested a journalism student who posted pictures of the teddy paratroopers on his website and a real-estate agent who offered accommodation to the Swedes behind the stunt. They are both accused of assisting border violators and face up to seven years in prison if convicted (Amnesty International is already on the case).

Beyond the ridicule of the situation and the questionable effectiveness of the European response to the event (are ‘clear messages’ ever effective in the international realm?), to me, the most interesting aspect of the teddy-bear gate was the role played by Per Cromwell, the owner of Swedish PR company Studio Total, who with the help of his co-workers Thomas Mazetti and Hannah Frey, started the whole row in the first place. ‘What we have managed is that public awareness of the state of affairs in Belarus has skyrocketed. Hundreds, thousands, of news articles have emerged,’ he said. The owner of the PR company admitted, however, that he did not know what the Swedish Foreign Ministry thought of the operation (probably not much, if you ask me).

Interestingly the stunt, which cost 150,000 EUR (232,000 NZD), was financed through the company: ‘Studio Total is a Swedish advertising agency specializing in generating buzz for brands such as Canal+, Clarion Hotels or Corona (to mention the ones  beginning with the letter C). The money we make from this we use for issues we believe in.’ Although some have dismissed the whole operation as a marketing stunt, this might be a new business model for activism, which merges the interests of a company (profitability) and an ethical commitment to values and norms, thus bypassing the funding conundrum. In the same vein, after meeting the director of Médecins sans frontières, the CEO of Lexcelera, a private translation company, set up Traducteurs sans frontières to provide free translations to the NGO sector.

Are these new forms of activism? Or is this only a feel-good strategy to enhance a company’s image and attract more clients? Either way, does it matter?

Per Cromwell’s goal was to ridicule the Belarus regime and support Belarusian human rights advocates. It certainly managed the former; I’m not so sure about the latter, especially if you consider the reactions of humiliated Lukashenko. The stunt also put the European (lack of effective?) policy towards Belarus into the spotlight. A review of the EU strategy to Lukashenko’s regime is due in October. Let’s see what happens then.


AFP, ‘Affaire des ours en peluche : trois Suédois convoqués par le KGB au Bélarus’, http://www.lexpress.fr/actualites/1/monde/affaire-des-ours-en-peluche-trois-suedois-convoques-par-le-kgb-du-belarus_1148677.html (accessed 27/08/12).

Andrej Dynko, ‘Europe’s Last Dictatorship’, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/17/opinion/belarus-europes-last-dictatorship.html (accessed 27/08/12).

Catherine Ashton, ‘Statement following the meeting of Political and Security Committee on Belarus’, http://www.consilium.europa.eu/uedocs/cms_data/docs/pressdata/EN/foraff/132159.pdf (accessed 27/08/12).

European Union External Action, section about Belarus, http://www.eeas.europa.eu/belarus/index_en.htm (accessed 27/08/12).

Stacey Kirk and Paloma Migone, ‘Ostapchuk tries to smear Valerie Adams’, http://www.stuff.co.nz/sport/olympics/7480504/Ostapchuk-tries-to-smear-Valerie-Adams (accessed 27/08/12).

Studio Total, http://www.studiototal.se/teddybears/pics—vids.html (accessed 28/08/12).

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2 comments on “Beware of the Teddy Bear!

  1. henning says:

    An interesting scenario which augments hard times for real estate agents and (citizen) journalists in Belarus, considering the repercussions of their irresponsible actions; and two tears in a bucket for a president who appears to have had few friends in his childhood, not even a teddy bear – which makes me wonder, and worry, about the fate of these 879 brave and selfless freedom teddies that plunged into an unknown future in an act that was without doubt beyond their control and, dare I say it, without their consent. I am fairly certain this will see some people up the barricades (www.megstoybox.com/pages/abuse.htm).

  2. roblaurs says:

    Interesting post Stefan. Studio Total’s stunt may or may not be a game-changer as far as Lukashenko and Belarussian HR are concerned (the ‘blowback’ on ordinary Belarussians doesn’t bode particularly well) but it does give new meaning to ‘poking the bear’. And will surely help drum up some PR business for ST on the side.

    Ridiculing dictators is a time-honoured propaganda tool – from Charlie Chaplin hamming it up as Hitler parody, Adenoid Hynkel, in The Great Dictator (1940) through to the more contemporary (and lower-brow) lampooning of Saddam Hussain, Kim Jong-Il, Gaddafi et al. by Matt Stone and Trey Parker (Team America, South Park) and Sacha Baron Cohen (The Dictator) – but it helps to be able to sling these arrows from the safety of a democracy.

    Even so, during WW2, Kiwi cartoonist David Low’s merciless satire incurred Der Führer’s wrath to the extent that Low made it into the Black Book (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Black_Book)…

    As with the selection of ‘worthy’ aid causes, ST’s innovative ‘spotlighting’ of Lukashenko’s regime reflects the dilemma faced by activists wanting to elevate an issue on to a congested global media agenda. Increasingly, it seems as though ‘outside-the-box’ attention-grabbing (e.g. ‘teddyrism’, big budget Glee-style ‘song-and-dance’ numbers) is the only sure-fire way of getting noticed before the next meme/viral campaign steals your thunder.

    Coincidentally, the former Soviet states do have a (disproportionately high) tendency to feature on the mainstream media’s radar through sheer outrageousness/outlandishness. Whether it’s ‘teddy bear bombings’, punk rockers Pussy Riot, rogue ‘Kazakh journalists’ (as much as Borat offended Astana – his antics put the world’s ninth largest nation firmly on the map), topless blonde protesters or good old-fashioned cults of personality (see Turkmenbashi) – the (focus on) ‘oddspot’ headlines emanating from this region are given outsize importance by the West compared to tales of run-of-the-mill, state-sanctioned repression.

    Indeed, Femen (the feminist Ukrainian protest group originally formed to highlight the iniquities of sex tourism) bank on the newsworthiness of their signature nudity:

    “At the beginning, we were not protesting topless but we realised we had to do something really radical … Everywhere – from TV channels to magazines – you see naked girls selling something. We are trying to say: ‘You should not show your body like that; you should use it to protest and fight.’”

    (http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2011/apr/15/ukrainian-feminists-topless-campaign)

    Surely, this ‘acting out’ arises from these states’ hardline clampdowns on dissent – an authoritarian specialty since the days of samizdat when the Communist Party’s newspaper was laughably called Pravda or ‘the Truth’. This, in turn, forces dissidents to seek alternative modes of expression – easier (if no less dangerous) in a digital age of microblogging and social media. The (solicited?) outsourcing of this recent activism to Scandinavian spin-doctors is definitely safer than, say, railing against Lukashenko from a soapbox on the streets of Minsk or waving an anti-Putin placard outside the Kremlin…

    And without wanting to belittle the consequences for those who defy their oppressors, maybe it’s simpler for the MSM to focus on the quirk factor to sell the stories. Every international newsroom needs a ‘go to’ angle for under-reported, little known corners of the world. Perhaps unusual political protest is the former Eastern bloc’s equivalent of NZ’s noteworthy contributions to the newswire – which is, of course, being the home of celebrity animals e.g. Shrek the sheep, Happy Feet the penguin, Opo and Moko the dolphins, Sirocco the kakapo etc…

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