Interview

The Teddy Bear Bombers

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.

Joshua Lott/Getty Images

Interview

Spooked

Israel's former military intelligence chief sounds off on Syria and other regional dangers facing the Jewish state.

Few people are more familiar with the Israeli military establishment's thinking than Amos Yadlin. A former major general in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Yadlin served as Israel's military intelligence chief from 2006 to 2010. Trained as a fighter pilot, he has flown more than 250 combat missions behind enemy lines -- participating in conflicts such as the 1973 Yom Kippur war, the 1981 bombing of Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor, and the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. In November 2011, Yadlin was named director of Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies.

Yadlin speaks with Foreign Policy at an especially challenging time for Israel. To the north, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's grip on power is faltering. The Assad regime has long been a thorn in the side of the Jewish state: It has supported militant groups like Hezbollah and Hamas and provided its Iranian ally with a foothold along the Mediterranean. Here, Yadlin discusses how Israel sees the demise of its longtime enemy.

Foreign Policy: Israel has recently expressed fears about what will become of Assad's chemical arsenal as his regime loses power. Is there any evidence these weapons have been deployed?

Amos Yadlin: Syria has been doing this in the past. Yes, they have operational capabilities and have deployed chemical weapons in the past. But right now, it's not likely they will be used against Israel.

FP: All signs indicate that Assad will fight into the end -- recent reports suggest he has intensified his military activity, including the movement of rockets, construction of new bunkers, and expansion of existing facilities. What is Israel doing to defend itself, should chemical weapons be mounted on long-range SCUD missiles?
 
AY: Israel can defend itself in more than one way. It will not only rely on defense only. The combination of good intelligence and a strong Air Force can deter SCUDs.

FP: Geopolitically, how different is the Syrian scenario from the Libyan?

AY: I would like to refer you to an analysis I co-wrote, titled "Syria: The case for the devil we don't know." Unlike Libya, Assad is actively backed by Russia and China. Unlike Egypt, the Syrian army is ready to kill its own citizens over and over.

FP: Syria's civil war has increasingly spilled over to bordering countries. If the regime falls, there is a possibility Assad may attempt to pass his stockpiles of chemical weapons to Hezbollah. Is there coordination between Israel, the United States, and regional forces to contain them?

AY: The United States, Israel, Turkey, and Jordan share the same interest in stopping transfers of chemical weapons to Hezbollah.

FP: In your opinion, could Western intervention in the Syrian conflict lead to a proxy war with Iran, also potentially drawing in Russia? Where would that leave Israel?

AY: There is no way Russia, Iran, or Israel will step in to stop a Western-NATO-Turkish operation. Iran has no military capability to project power. Russia won't use military force. Israel won't use military force unless its borders are attacked.

FP: What is the nature of Assad's chemical weapons arsenal? He said he would use them against foreign forces only. Could he potentially use them against his domestic opponents, which he claims are foreign-backed al Qaeda groups, if they threaten his hold on power in Damascus?

AY: Assad has a wide range of chemical weapons, including mustard gas, sarin, and VX gas. I imagine he could use them internally as a last resort.

FP: What is the significance, apart of the psychological effect, of the assassination of top Syrian security officials last week? Did it really damage the regime's operational capabilities?

AY: The assassinations were substantial. Four senior officials were killed. This had a psychological effect, but also a serious operational one. Still, history proves regimes can survive even after stronger strategic setbacks.

FP: How substantial is Iran's influence over Assad's policies?

AY: The regime is still the most powerful military force in Syria. It is backed by Iran, but Assad fully controls what happens in Syria. He's no Iranian puppet.

FP: Do you anticipate that Syria will be divided into sectarian regions after Assad's fall?

AY: A division into cantons is a possible scenario. [The Assad regime could create] an Alawite state in the northwest as a way to regroup and cut its losses. The Kurds could do the same.

FP: When do you expect Assad to fall?

AY: Watch for these five indicators signaling Assad is about to fall: Defections of Syrian generals along with their divisions, the Free Syrian Army winning over neighborhoods in Damascus and Aleppo, Druze and Christian minorities moving into opposition to Assad, Russia abandoning its protection of Assad in the U.N. Security Council, and a collapse of the economy.

FP: How much longer will the international community watch what is happening in Syria without acting, and what can it do to change Russia's stance? 

AY: The world will keep watching until the atrocities rise significantly. Until now, the humanitarian crisis does not sufficiently bother the West. No refugees are fleeing to Italy or France. Also, until the Syrian opposition is united and can hold territory, the prospect for Western intervention is slim.

FP: What are the chances of another round of violence between Israel and Hezbollah after Assad's fall? Do you predict that Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah will try to do provoke Israel to gain legitimacy in Lebanon?
 
AY: Nasrallah does not want to be seen once again as the "destroyer" of Lebanon. Hezbollah, without Assad's backing, will become weaker. Chances that it will start a war against Israel, therefore, become even lower.

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