Belarus is recalling its ambassador to Sweden and pulling out its entire embassy staff, intensifying a dispute that began with a reported mass drop of free-speech promoting teddy bears over the eastern European nation.
The steps were in retaliation for last week’s ouster of two senior Belarusian diplomats by the Scandinavian country, the Minsk-based Foreign Ministry said in a statement on its website today. Belarus last week expelled the Swedish ambassador.
While not severing diplomatic ties, Belarus said it asked Sweden to withdraw its embassy employees before their credentials are revoked on Aug. 30. President Aleksandr Lukashenko last month fired the border-guard and air-force chiefs after Swedish pilots flew an airplane into Belarus on July 4 and dropped teddy bears with signs calling for free speech. The pilots returned to Lithuania and posted video footage of their exploits on the Internet.
“Lukashenko is now throwing all Swedish diplomats out of Belarus,” Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said on Twitter Inc. “His fear of human rights reaching new heights.”
Tomas Mazetti, one of the pilots who also works at Swedish public relations agency Studio Total, said that the action to drop 800 fluffy toys over towns and villages was meant to promote support for the political opposition. He refuted reports, including from Swedish weekly trade publication Resume, that the action had been a hoax and had not actually occurred.
The European Union, of which Sweden is a member, is “urgently seeking clarification,” the office of EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in an e-mailed statement in Brussels. Ashton also last week expressed “grave concern” over the expulsion of the Swedish ambassador.
“The European Union reiterates its full commitment to the Vienna Convention and to the exercise of constructive relations with its partners in line with diplomatic norms,” Ashton’s office said. The EU and its member states “are committed to the modernisation of Belarus and to the spread of European values, in particular democracy, human rights and the rule of law.”
The Belarusian KGB on Aug. 7 summoned the pilots to Belarus to stand for official questioning on charge of trespassing, according to a statement on its website. The secret service also said it arrested Belarusian citizens Anton Suryapin and Sergey Basharimov on charges of conspiring with the Swedes.
“We will come to Belarus, not to aid the regime, but only to help the innocently imprisoned Anton and Sergey, whose detention is a clear violation of all principles of justice in a democratic society,” Mazetti said in an e-mailed. The Swedish organizers may come to Belarus if they are offered immunity from criminal charges, he said.
The KGB said it officially considers the Swedish pilots as suspects in the criminal case which may carry a penalty of as long as seven years. The KGB will make the final decision about the status of the arrested Belarusians after questioning the Swedes, the secret service said.