If pictures could speak…

I couldn’t not share. If a picture is worth a thousand words what are just a few going through these guys heads?

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Dude on the left, “Please don’t kill me and my family.” Kim, “Weee, it’s poo’ing!”

 

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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).

The UNWTO, Santa and Zumba

Image

Yesterday’s world section of the Dominion Post[1] contained an article that caught my eye: The World Santa Claus Congress, which is currently on in a small Danish town north of Copenhagen, has Santas sweating in zumba classes. While a number of disquieting images crossed my mind, including that of a room full of red, over-dressed, over-weight men swinging their hips to the tunes of ‘Let It Rain Over Me’ by Marc Anthony, what really intrigued me was the existence of a potential international body specialising in the trade of Noël. After all, an international institution representing the interests of Father Christmas & Co sounds as plausible as the World Tourism Organisation naming Robert Mugabe as the ‘UN leader for tourism’.[2]

Formerly established in 1957 (the UNWTO was created in 1975), the Congress is a very loose organisation, with no permanent secretariat, nor any standing committee. It revolves around a three-day summit that brings together Santas from every continent every year in summer. For obvious reasons the international conference cannot be held in winter since ‘Santa Claus has a lot of work to do to give out presents’ as was pointed out by Russian Santa Alexei Gavrilov.[3]

During the course of the event not only do a number of Christmas-oriented activities take place, but hot topics are also debated, including weight regulations and health issues (hence Marc Anthony and the zumba classes or the compulsory bike rides), international taxation rules on presents, the standardisation of chimneys, and the contentious issue of when presents should be delivered (at midnight or in the morning of the 25th of December, or even on the 7th of January? – the lack of consensus is quite striking but does not prevent the organisation from functioning).

Contrary to the UNWTO (where travel-bans and human rights violations are apparently no hindrance), requirements to attend are strict and quite straight-forward: You must be a member of a Santa Claus organisation or work as a professional Santa, Christmas pixie or elf. You might be asked to provide evidence of your professional status, such as pictures of you working as Santa, references, and/or recommendations.

Last but not least, the congress is a festive event, where good-humoured spectators of all ages are welcome – a chorus of Santa nations that aims at recreating the magic of Christmas in the middle of summer.

For more information on the WSCC and the magic, please visit www.worldsantaclauscongress.com. You could also go to the UNWTO’s website (www.unwto.org), but it wouldn’t be as fun.


[1] ‘Santa to Zumba’, Dominion Post, 24/07/2012.

[2] David Smith, ‘Robert Mugabe asked to be UN leader for tourism’, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/may/29/robert-mugabe-un-international-envoy-tourism (accessed on 25/07/2012).

[3] Martin Burlund, ‘World Santa Claus congress kicks off in Copenhagen’, http://in.reuters.com/article/2008/07/23/idINIndia-34645320080723 (accessed on 25/07/2012).