Something in the Air

The Excellent Adventures of Boris and Alexander

Teddy Bear Summit over Sweden

Over the past month, as NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity edged ever closer to its destination 200 million kilometers from Earth (give or take 150 million or so), this little world underwent a few curious moments of its own.

It all began on the Fourth of July – but not in Philadelphia. Rather, it was 150 feet (50 meters) above Minsk.

That morning, 879 Swedish teddy bears parachuted into Belarus to support human rights.

Organized and financed by the Stockholm-based advertising firm Studio Total, the “Teddybears for Free Speech” campaign involved flying a light airplane into Belarusian airspace – vociferously pronounced secure by President Alexander Lukashenko, who has been nicknamed “Europe’s last dictator” – and dispersing the cargo of parachute-wrapped stuffed animals over Minsk and several villages in Belarus.

The bears were tagged with messages supporting freedom of speech and the media, which has undergone attacks when opposing Lukashenko.

About two weeks after the air drop, following a stream of steady denials from the state that anything had happened (and the arrest of Belarusian journalist Anton Suryapin for posting photos showing it had), Studio Total published an open letter of protest of Suryapin’s arrest. Another week passed before Lukashenko confirmed what the Internet already knew – annoying invention for everyone that it is. Lukashenko went on to fire the country’s air defense chief and head of the national border guards.

Within days, however, he apparently decided that he’d also had enough of human rights-happy Swedes and expelled ambassador Stefan Eriksson, allegedly for providing a university with books involving human rights and for meeting with opposition groups. Sweden responded by ejecting two diplomats and blocking the arrival of the new Belarusian ambassador. Now Belarus has closed down the Swedish embassy entirely and has banished Sweden’s six envoys.

Officially, the teddy bears are not involved in the escalation of this dispute. Indeed, the Norwegian news service NRK has revealed an interesting complaint from the Belarusian state media: the assertion that Ambassador Eriksson personally blocked IKEA from coming to the country.

The European Union will hold an emergency meeting about the overall situation on Friday.

I wish I could be a fly on the wall for that one.

While President Lukashenko was batting away falling plush toys – and preparing to brush off all interactions with Sweden – world-watchers aware of the air drop would have been pardoned for wondering if one of the bears had gone wildly astray.

In what is apparently a new Olympic event specifically reserved for politicians, London mayor Boris Johnson descended to London’s Victoria Park on a zip wire – helmeted, in a business suit, and waving two Union Jacks.

Well, he sort of descended. Almost. Eventually.

I have been fascinated by Johnson from the start of these Olympics, as one can only be when there is no danger that the fellow will become one’s own national leader. For a Conservative British politician – heck, for any politician – he comes across as remarkably unconcerned about his self-image. (For a really fun exercise in your spare time, try imagining various other politicians dangling in a harness 20 feet above a park. I had to stop when I hit Liv Signe Narvasete, John Boehner, and Chris Christie.)

Furthermore, he sometimes makes sense, which is a commodity in very short supply. When all around him the International Olympic Committee and the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games were replaying Monty Python’s “Spanish Inquisition” skit in asserting their brand rights on sausages and hula hoops, he sounded his unique clarion call of reason.

Mind you, I suspect that this artlessness is often calculated. Any politician who retorts to inquiries about his aspirations for high office, “How could anybody elect a prat who gets stuck in a zip wire?” is a bit dodgy, to say the least.

After all, here in the United States we have openly functioned under the delusion that we’ll be drinking beer with high officials – not to mention our demonstrating the memory and imagination of chronic alcoholics when it comes to assessing whether our drinking buddies’ actions qualify them as functioning public servants.

Still, it’s only as I consider the unlikely air drops of Boris and Alexander that I have remotely come to appreciate the impulse behind Americans’ peculiar sentiment 12 years ago.  Comparing the two, there’s no question which one I’d rather have around.

So I go along with the Chief Boriswatcher online and declare this fellow is, indeed, “the mutt’s nads.” (It took me longer to decipher what that means than it did for those teddy bears to populate Minsk – or for Mayor Johnson to alight.)

But I thank both public figures for, in their respective fashions, injecting some much-needed zaniness into the summer of 2012 on this little world.

Maybe NASA should launch the next vehicle down here.

UPDATE – 17 August 2012

The fur kept flying in the past week, with Belarus’s President Alexander Lukashenko asserting that the Swedish government itself was behind the plush toy drop, which Studio Total denies (and which I personally find far beyond the imaginative capabilities of any political organization, though I wait to be proven wrong with bated breath). A day later, the KGB issued a summons via their Web site and by email to Studio Total, requiring their presence in Belarus to assist in investigation of the teddy bear incident and in the cases of two Belarusians who have been accused of aiding the Swedish agency. The KGB summons warned of possible fines, imprisonment, or corrective labor if the firm did not comply.

For their part, Studio Total have declined the KGB’s invitation in an open letter also inviting Lukashenko instead to come to Skåne in southern Sweden, to learn “everything you want to know on how to cheat your expensive air defence systems.”

The aircraft involved in the drop departed from Lithuania, which is investigating the incident but has warned the Belarusian ambassador that the embassy expulsions may worsen relations with the European Union. Meanwhile, the European Union agreed in their emergency meeting to reprimand the Minsk government over the expulsion of Sweden’s embassy staff. The U.S. State Department also has asserted support for Sweden over the embassy expulsions. (They did not mention the teddy bears.)

The other figure among airborne cuddly toys, Mayor Boris Johnson, appears to be enjoying his popularity rise from the Olympics as he turns his attention to infrastructure problems. While I have to take issue with his dubbing London “the capital of the world,” his focus is laudable and, actually, one I intend to imitate here.

It seems preferable to focusing on likability as determined by beer consumption.

UPDATE – 22 August 2012

Belarusian journalist Anton Suryapin, imprisoned for posting photographs of the teddy bears while they were supposed to be nonexistent and allegedly for helping the Swedish activists, has been freed on bail, as has a real estate agent accused of helping the activists when renting them an apartment. Suryapin’s interpretation of his incarceration to date appears to be that it was an effort on the part of the KGB to get the Swedes to come to Belarus. Both men still face up to seven years’ imprisonment.