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.