August 10, 2012

ON JULY 4, a single-engine plane took off from Lithuania and flew southeast toward Minsk, the capital of neighboring Belarus. The plane crossed into Belarus without any interference. Once near Minsk, the plane began to jettison 879 plush teddy bears, a few at a time, attached to parachutes and bearing small signs calling for free speech in a country that has precious little of it.

For three weeks, Belarus denied that anything had happened, even as photos of the teddy bears began showing up on the Internet. Finally, on July 26, the country’s erratic and authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, acknowledged that the plane had violated Belarus airspace. He exploded at the lassitude of his generals, firing the chiefs of the air force and the border service. Lukashenko, reelected in 2010 in a ballot described by international observers as rigged, has ruled Belarus since 1994 with an iron fist and a clownish flourish.

The airdrop was the work of three Swedes who run an unorthodox advertising agency, Studio Total, and wanted to help the Belarus democracy movement known as Charter 97. Two of the Swedes were in the plane, tossing out the teddy bears, while a third was on the ground in case they needed a getaway car. In the event, they didn’t — the plane returned safely to Lithuania.

It was more than a little reminiscent of a flight in 1987 by Mathias Rust, a 19-year-old from Hamburg who piloted a Cessna into Soviet airspace and landed near Red Square, deeply embarrassing the mighty Soviet military.

Once again, the smallest gesture has become a lesson in the insecurity of the powerful. The airdrop prompted Lukashenko to throw a fit. He expelled Sweden’s ambassador and withdrew his envoy from Stockholm. He arrested a journalism student who posted pictures of the teddy bears on the Internet and a real estate agent who rented a flat to one of the Swedes. In an escalating diplomatic row, Lukashenko then kicked all Swedish diplomats out of the country and closed the Belarusan Embassy in Sweden.

It seems that the teddy bear airdrop was a resounding success. The Swedes wrote on their Web site: “A dictator can be hated, despised or feared. The only thing he cannot survive is being laughed at.” Mr. Lukashenko is grossly overreacting to a daring stunt that called attention to the ugly underpinning of his rule.