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.
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?
Frey: Most importantly, we want to bring attention to the lack of
freedom of expression in Belarus.
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
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?
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.
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?
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.
is absurd here is that we did this with a propeller airplane.
exactly -- that we did this.
FP: And how
did you come up with the idea of using the plane?
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.
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
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?
haven't had any contact whatsoever.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
agree, but I suppose I'd still rather see it as art rather than propaganda.
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.
yet, anyway. We'll see.
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?
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.
there is something that we would like to get out it's that everyone -- including
companies -- can put their money into something good.
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