Belarus has denied that an airborne teddy bear invasion landed in its countryside on 4 July despite committing a photography student to a longer period of detention on Wednesday over online photos of one of the plush animals.
Swedish Studio Total, which brands itself as “northern Scandinavia’s most notorious ad agency”, is behind the stunt in which two pilots in a single-engine aircraft flew without authorisation into Belarusian airspace from Lithuania before releasing 1,000 teddy bears holding free-speech signs.
Most of the teddies were parachuted to the southwest of Belarus capital Minsk in the early morning, before a radio call from air-traffic controllers warned them to turn back, releasing the remaining toys along the way, co-organiser and pilot Tomas Mazetti said.
A couple of witnesses on the ground, cited by Swedish news website thelocal.se, said they had recovered parachute-wearing teddy bears with “foreign” messages, though photos posted online showed the signs to have been written in the Cyrillic alphabet. These, along with a 90-minute video of the plane’s flight, were among the evidence used by Studio Total to prove the flight did take place and the teddy bears were indeed dropped (the announced launch of an Austrian International School of Sex attracted much media coverage last year before turning out to be a fake campaign organised by Studio Total to highlight Austria’s low birth rate).
Belarus nonetheless maintains the stunt is a hoax, with its State Border Committee denying that the country’s airspace had been violated without authorisation. This did not stop authorities from extending on Wednesday by a further ten days the detention of a 20-year-old journalism and photography student arrested last Friday on counts of helping foreigners to enter Belarus illegally after he posted photographs of the bears on his website. Anton Surapin claims the photos were sent to him from an unknown address but if convicted he could face seven years in prison.
The PR firm aimed to show its solidarity with the pro-democracy movement in Belarus, a country whose autocratic leader is often described as Europe’s last dictator. “Like the Belarusion opposition, which is daily subjected to threats of violence and reprisals, we thought it was a risk worth taking,” Mazetti said about the flight.