Probably, as history has it, few teddy bears have managed to piss off so many, by doing so little, as in the story of the Belarus Teddy bear Airdrop. The whole thing is, mildly speaking, confusing. Luckily, I have read my Winnie the Pooh. Bears do stupid things, but I am convinced that when they do make a move, there is always something more to it, even if the bears themselves do not realize it. So, what can the incident tell us about the state of things?
By and large, the Belorussian population can, at best, be described as apolitical. Belorussians do not easily rise against oppressive forces, domestic or foreign. The major exception is the underground anti-Nazi resistance during Second World War, when the population in Belarus waged a merciless partisan war against the Nazis. Seen from today’s standpoint, somewhat ironically, supported by extensive airborne operations, then carried out by the Soviets. I recall conversations with Belorussians, admitting that they “have to be forced against the wall before doing anything.”
The opposition is a margin phenomenon, almost at the dissident level (a few devoted, an ignorant mass), with no names to gather around. The Belorussian security further infiltrates, by a number of means, practically anything remotely similar to an efficient, decisive political opposition. That such an action would be launched by the so-called Belorussian opposition, as an effort to gain support for the cause of democracy, is very far fetched.
When it comes to Lithuania, the country’s somewhat desperate efforts to claim not having anything to do with the matter ring a little lame. In a way, this is an understandable position, since the matter, de facto, has very little to do with Lithuania. The incident confirms, one more time, that Lithuania’s ability to perform an independent foreign policy initiative is very limited. Lithuania is eager to project an image as a protector of freedom and democracy, as a country “in the borderlands of the democratic World,” as expressed in speeches by for instance the minister of defense, Rasa Juknevičienė. The main example of this is the harboring in Vilnius of the EHU university: Kicked out of Belarus by the Lukashenko regime and now performing its activities on Lithuanian soil. The university is explicitly supported by both Lithuania, the E.U., U.S., and, separately, the Nordic countries.
The seemingly uncoordinated statements by different high officials – including the said defense minister – about what Lithuania was actually able to know or not, suggest an inability in words and deeds to deal with these kinds of tense “borderline-situations.” This is partly related to the fact that the country is small and relatively insignificant in itself, while at the same being located in a power-grid of an increasing number of geopolitical interests. For the first time Swedish involvement has directly resulted in a regional and – to some extent – international political crisis. I tend to believe it is not the last.
It further points at a genuine domestic political uncertainty how to actually deal with the Belorussian dictator and bilateral relations. One is reminded that Lukashenko actually visited Lithuania two years ago, providing an indeed rare opportunity to be treated as a statesman by an EU-state, or rather, its president. This visit, though, did not bring any clarity to the relationships. Relations have ever since been struggling along in something that can only be described as a lukewarm atmosphere.
Needless to say, the two countries are in many ways dependent upon each other. Much of the regional small trade, formal as well as informal, is conducted with Belarus. On weekends, the Akropolis mall parking lot in Vilnius is full of Belorussian cars with well-off shoppers. It should also be noted, that together with increasing political involvement, Swedish-related economic interests with a Belorussian connection are taking a qualitative leap in Lithuania as we speak. One of the major arguments for IKEA to establish a store in Vilnius next year centers around the adjacent Belorussian buyers.
In many ways, however, Lithuania is more dependent upon Belarus than the vice versa; this first of all because Lithuania by and large is shaped as a transit economy. About one third of the goods handled in Klaipėda are related to Belarus, and about two thirds of the railroad transports are linked to their Eastern neighbor. For Lithuania, any major disturbance in the relationship with Belarus implies a potentially severe economic threat.
All in all, we are looking at a rather sophisticated and slow-running regional process, with many subtle layers of ongoing development. When speaking of the Bear-drop, I have noted a rather irritated tone from Lithuanian acquaintances who have certain insights in geopolitics, about the audacity of the bear-droppers who think they can just fly in and “teach democracy” in Eastern Europe with little or no understanding of what is actually at stake.
But, this might just be the beginning. I am here talking about the what I would like to call the development of a “proxy conflict;” where players who are not directly involved with their own assets, but with certain interests, deploy means to interfere, with minimized risk, and with little or no liability to anybody.
A proxy approach offers several advantages, at least theoretically, to the party performing it. It requires a limited presence, it is cost effective, it allows you to do things you would hardly be able to do yourself, and most important of all, it provides, if needed, a plausible deniability. On the flip-side, it is very hard to control the consequences of any action taken, and it may lead to severe effects beyond the direct impact. I think we are about to see more of this kind in the region in the future, with proxy efforts “stirring the hive” like, well, a bear looking for honey, who walks off after the honey has been found, leaving the hive.
In addition to this, without claiming that this is the case, it must be said that, to anybody familiar with the modus operandi of the intelligence community, operation “AirBear” offers a number of typical features significant for a proxy operation, which were used frequently during the Cold War. There are several examples to suggest this: The logistical resources employed – by no means available to any Belorussian opposition – an independent “contractor” with no liability, the connections needed inside a totalitarian country, and a bold violation of the air-space of a totalitarian regime, implies that whatever the Swedish Studio Total (known for a number of rather controversial “public actions,” such as a fake sex-school in Austria) may say, there could be much more to it than just somebody’s wish to perform a democracy-enhancing stunt. This is not to say that this is necessarily the case, but it’s plausible. And a Lukashenko-style regime will no doubt keep this in mind when deploying counter measures.
Referring to the economy and banking business and the stress-tests performed to see whether the banks are able to withstand serious tension, what has been gained by this, may I say, plush-test? As it comes out, pretty much nothing. An embarrassed dictator, seemingly making a fool of himself. A major backlash on efforts to support existing Belarussian opposition from within. On a higher level, a lot of diplomatic fuss, which in reality did not change a thing. The E.U. is not happy, but clearly declines to step up its diplomatic warfare. This has previously turned out to be useless maneuver anyway, forcing a somewhat embarrassing return of ambassadors after an brief absence. Enraged exits have little or no effect on a jaded dictator who knows how use time to his advantage. Lithuania, finally, is dangling in the wind, not really sure what to do about the whole thing. The only visible political result so far is the development of closer ties between Belarus and Russia in the area of defense, with Belorussian anti-aircraft units practicing in Russia, to be up to the task next time.
On the other hand, the teddies have indeed put the paw on an increasingly complex situation, where the countries at the front risk being put in a “borderline situation” by somebody else. In order to deal with such challenges, a greater awareness of both common political long-term objectives and the potential costs for the parties involved to enhance them is needed, especially on the regional level. If not, the field easily opens up for “bear-services”, an special expression every Swede and Lithuanian understand.
Jonas Ohman is a Swedish documentary film maker, living in Lithuania. His main field of interest is Lithuanian history.