An international fight is brewing in Europe–with the sacking of high-ranking military officials, the arrest of journalists, and even the expulsion of ambassadors–all over a couple of teddy bears. On July 4, Swedish advertising firm Studio Total flew a chartered plane into Belarussian airspace and dropped about 800 teddy bears into towns near the capital of Minsk, each of the fuzzy creatures holding a sign supporting greater freedoms and human rights in the former Soviet Republic. At first, state-controlled media in Belarus denied the incident. But since then both the air force chief and Chairman of the State Border Committee were fired, a journalist who posted photos of the bears on the Internet was arrested, and the Swedish ambassador was expelled from the country, in a fit of pique that brought strong condemnation from the European Union.
Relations between the EU and Belarus have become increasingly strained in recent years as Presidential strongman Victor Lukashenko has asserted an increasingly authoritarian and repressive grip over the nation. Since his election as the country’s first post-Soviet president in 1994, Lukashenko has severely reduced freedom of the press and religion, convicted and imprisoned countless political dissidents on less-than-flimsy evidence, and been accused of using force to turn elections in his party’s favor (most recently the heavily disputed 2010 presidential contest). Current EU sanctions include visa bans and asset freezes on the president and his inner circle and an arms embargo against the country. But these sanctions–which were expanded already earlier this year–may yet become more severe; Lukashenko’s government is due for its regular review by the European body this coming October. Observers are bearish on the outcome. // Patrick Barrett