It was July 4 this year when a horde of plush toys fell from the sky and onto the streets in the Belarussian capital city of Minsk. Each fuzzy bear had a small parachute, and they all carried placards with phrases in support of free speech and human rights.
The stuffed animals had plenty to be mad about. In the former Soviet state of Belarus, elections are rigged. The executive branch, with President Alexander Lukashenko at the helm, wields near-complete control over the country. Protests are banned, and the media is stifled. Opposition activists languish alongside convicted criminals in brutally administrated prisons. Human rights violations are rampant, and are often carried out by the central government security agency, which is still referred to as the KGB.
In mounting their collective protest, the teddy bears didn't act alone. They were outfitted by a team of three Swedish activists, two of whom risked death to fly a tiny airplane into Belarussian airspace and toss the toys overboard. The Swedes were over Belarus for little more than an hour before flying right back to their home country, miraculously unmolested.
Lukashenko, often referred to as Europe's last dictator, at first denied the incident had ever occurred. It was an embarrassment for the heavily policed country, which happens to be highly protective of its airspace.
But as video surfaced of the incident, the administration had to own up to the security breach. The president angrily sacked both the head of the air force and the head of border service.
Addressing the new incoming head of border service, Lukashenko did not mince words.
"Unlawful violations of state borders must not be allowed," he said, according to Reuters. "They must be stopped by all force and means, including weapons, regardless of anything. The border guards must prove their loyalty to the fatherland."
While the Swedes made it out unscathed, Belarussian officials snatched up any citizens who had been even remotely involved in the escapade. So far, they have arrested one real estate agent who had helped the Swedes set up lodging in Belarus, as well as one young blogger who posted photos of the teddy bears on his personal website.
This last century was a rough one for Belarus. When the 1900s began, the country was under occupation by Russia -- that lasted until 1918.
Almost immediately after that, Belarus was overtaken by the Bolsheviks and absorbed into the Soviet Union. The country suffered badly under Stalin, and it suffered even more during the German Nazi occupation that resulted in the execution of nearly all of its Jewish population.
Then the Soviets regained control, until that all fell apart in 1991. And three years later came Lukashenko. In effect, Belarus never had a moment to breathe: its citizens have never experienced a truly representative and fair democracy.
When a 39-year-old Lukashenko first ran for the presidential office, he campaigned as a populist. Belarus had suffered economically in its first years of independence after 1991, and Lukashenko vowed to strengthen ties with Russia in order to stabilize the country. He proudly pointed to the fact that he was the only Belarussian politician who had voted against the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Upon his unexpected landslide primary victory in 1994, soon-to-be-President Lukashenko was unabashedly self-congratulatory.
"What happened today came as a sensation only to those who refused to face the truth about our country," he said. "The poor and deprived people for the first time had a chance to elect somebody like them to this supreme post, and the people spoke."
Months later, he began his first term in office as the leader of Belarus.
A Hostile Takeover
After two years in office, Lukashenko made sweeping changes to the national government. He amended the constitution to consolidate federal power into the executive branch, and he lengthened his own first term. He later made a decree that abolished term limits altogether.
Belarussians are not blind to this injustice. Today, reports The Economist, only 20 percent of the population approves of his leadership. Unfortunately, there's not much to be done. Under Lukashenko's iron-fisted leadership over these past 18 years, voting has amounted to little more than a recurring charade.
The last presidential contest, in 2010, resulted in a Lukashenko victory with 80 percent of the vote -- at least, that's how government officials tallied it. International observers, including the United States and many other Western nations, have blasted the corrupt elections and refuse to recognize the Belarussian government.
In the main square of Minsk, thousands of Belarussians rallied to protest Lukashenko's 2010 victory, just as they had after a similar 2006 election. But they were met with governmental force as riot troops moved in to arrest hundreds of demonstrators, including six of the nine politicians who had run against Lukashenko as opposition candidates.
The European Union and the United States responded with strong sanctions, which weakened the already-faltering Belarussian economy. The country is also burdened by asset freezes, travel bans, and the 2012 revocation of Western ambassadors to Minsk.
The growing isolation leaves Lukashenko with only one leg to stand on -- and that leg is starting to buckle.
Easy on the East
For his entire political career, Lukashenko has presented himself as an ally of Moscow, at the expense of building a profitable relationship with the European Union. Although the president is an old pro at pitting the two sides against each other when politically expedient, his actions over the past 18 years leave little doubt that his ties to the Kremlin are binding.
But on the streets of Minsk, public opinion may be tugging the country in the opposite direction. A June report from the Centre for European Transformation found that "general long-term trends are increasing pro-European mood and decreasing pro-Russian one." But this trend is not without exceptions; public preferences tend to change with the times, and Belarussian state media plays a major role in steering the dialogue.
The past five years have seen Belarus slowly opening up to EU influence. But in 2010, an economic fallout due to shortsighted policies, compounded by EU sanctions following the election, prompted Minsk to look to Moscow for a bailout.
Putin seized the opportunity to build a connection; he plans to establish a strong tripartite union between Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus. This 'Eurasian Union' would stand as a counterpoint to the EU, strengthening Putin's s diplomatic position.
So last year, Russia delivered billions of dollars in bailout money to the Lukashenko administration. This dampened prospects for a closer Belarussian partnership with the EU.
"Since the beginning of 2011 [the] topic of Belarus-EU relations has been gradually leaving front pages, it has been losing dynamics and news have been mostly focused on negative aspects of these relations and on conflicts," said the report. "Volume of news about Russia, inversely, has been increasing and stressing positive impact of Russia's help during economic crisis of 2011 and reestablishment of its friendly relations with Belarus."
That's why pro-EU public opinion, which reached an all-time high early last year, has lately been on the decline.
The Million-Ruble Question
Is Russia a reliable partner?
On a personal level, Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin don't seem to like each other very much. But they have strong economic ties; Belarus has long served as a conduit for Russian crude exports to European markets. And the two countries both benefit from their alliance, with Belarus in constant need of funding and Russia keen to prevent the EU from gaining a new foothold in a neighboring country.
But Russia is going through problems of its own, both politically and economically. And if the Kremlin weakens, the Belarussian administration could find itself in dire straits.
In Moscow, dissenters have grown bolder than ever before. Thousands rallied to protest Putin's election to a controversial third term as president, with some international observers calling his victory illegitimate.
In late July, two high-profile cases of suppression of dissent made international headlines. On July 31, three members of the punk band Pussy Riot went on trial after being arrested for hooliganism in March; they had criticized Putin in a performance in a Moscow cathedral.
Also on July 31, Russia's most high-profile activist, Alexander Navalny, was charged by state investigators with embezzlement that allegedly occurred years ago. Navalny could face a decade in jail; he maintains that the charges are ridiculous and politically motivated.
And on the economic front, Russia is now paying the price for its undiversified economy. Things were going swimmingly until just a few years ago, when recession in the EU started rippling outward. Oil and gas prices are down, and Russia's deficit is soaring. In order to address these woes, Russia may have to revitalize its economy by promoting new industries that open up the market -- such moves would make it more difficult for the Putin administration to control the flow of funds, and this could weaken the power of the central government.
Whether or not Lukashenko is in need of Russian support, Moscow may soon find itself with bigger fish to fry.
A Bear Market
That would leave Europe's last dictator out on a lurch, and in order to gain any assistance from the EU, he would have to ease up on his repressive practices and allow for a more open society.
Until then, Belarussians know that dissent will be dealt with harshly. The threat of jail time in one of Minsk's notoriously brutal prisons is enough keep opposition activism to a minimum, at least for now.
But while people may be vulnerable to abuse, teddy bears have nothing to fear. The Swedes weren't the first to use plush toys against the Belarussian administration; they were inspired by a February incident, involving a a few residents of Minsk.
On February 10, a group of activist youths set up a small collection of stuffed animals on a snow-covered mound, just off the roadside in the capital city. Like the Swedish bears, these toys carried pro-human rights signs. "Free the people," said one of the signs, according to Radio Free Europe. "Toys against lawlessness," said another. "Cops tore my eye out," complained one particularly bedraggled bunny.
The government eventually tracked down the human perpetrators, arresting two young men and sentencing each to 10 days in jail.
Interestingly, that incident was an imitation of yet another toy protest -- not in Belarus, but in Russia. In January, protesters in the Siberian town of Barnaul evaded laws against impromptu public protests by organizing legions of toys holding signs.
It is clear, then, that Belarus looks to Russia in more ways than one. Lukashenko may rely on Putin for economic support he sorely needs to keep his population from rising up, but Belarussians themselves may be inspired by the increasingly loud dissent movement unfolding on the streets of Moscow. And if that dissent builds momentum, Europe's last dictator will have to fear more than cute stuffed animals.