STOCKHOLM – A Swedish advertising agency that air-dropped hundreds of teddy bears carrying pro-human rights messages into Belarus has rejected a summons for questioning by the former Soviet republic's KGB security agency.
Instead, Studio Total offered Tuesday to discuss the matter directly with the country's authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, and invited him to Sweden.
The KGB on Friday summoned three members of Studio Total — Hannah Frey and co-founders Tomas Mazetti and Per Cromwell — to explain their "illegal crossing" into Belarus. The summons threatened them with fines, six-month prison terms or "corrective labor" unless they appeared within 10 days.
The group's July 4 teddy bear stunt infuriated Lukashenko, who fired two generals over it. It also added stress to already deteriorating diplomatic relations between Stockholm and Minsk. Belarus this month effectively expelled the Swedish ambassador and ordered Sweden to close its embassy in Minsk over what Stockholm said was its push for human rights.
"Threatening someone with 'corrective' work if they don't accept your invitations is considered bad manners," the Swedish team wrote in a sarcastic open letter to Lukashenko.
The team said they had received threats by email and telephone since the teddy bear stunt and that "all trails" point to the KGB.
"To sum it up, all these small issues have made us lose our appetite to come and visit you," they wrote, suggesting instead that Lukashenko come to Sweden.
The KGB said Friday it wants the Swedes to participate in its "investigative actions" so it can clarify the role each person played and help it decide how to deal with two Belarusian men accused of aiding the Swedes.
Studio Total at the time warned that Lukashenko may be using the two Belarusians as pawns to force the Swedes to go to Minsk.
Lukashenko has ruled Belarus, a nation of 10 million, since 1994, repressing opposition groups and independent news media while preserving a quasi-Soviet economy with about 80 percent of industry in state hands. He has earned the nickname in the West of "Europe's last dictator."
Although the teddy bear drop was not officially cited as a reason for the closing of Sweden's embassy in Minsk or the barring of Sweden's envoy there, Lukashenko was last week cited as accusing Swedish diplomats of involvement in the stunt.