It is not far between Stockholm and Minsk
The diplomatic crisis between Belarus and Sweden goes much deeper than to the recent “teddy bear incident”. The poet and former president candidate Uladzimir Njakljajeu, who was imprisoned after the 2010 demonstrations, writes an open letter to the ambassador of Sweden where he discusses how the recent crisis became yet another opportunity to persecute the opposition in Belarus.
As we all know, a state of diplomatic crisis between Sweden and Belarus has existed for some time. In August, it erupted in open conflict with the expulsion of the Swedish ambassador to Minsk, Stefan Eriksson, which prompted a tit-for-tat response by the Swedish government that has left the Belarus embassy in Stockholm without its most senior emissary. Those who, like many Swedish journalists, were unfamiliar with the prelude to this drama might easily have gained the impression that this diplomatic to-do was triggered by a Swedish advertising agency that (in an act of self-promotion) had released some teddy bears from an airplane over Minsk. We all know dictators are crazy, people reasoned, so obviously Lukashenko was perfectly capable of creating a diplomatic crisis over a few cuddly toys. Another theory was that the crisis was sparked by Swedish Eurovision winner Loreen’s by all means laudable tour of Belarus and her meeting with the local opposition. Because everyone has heard of Loreen, right? So it was Loreen and the teddy bears that filled the columns.
The reality was, in fact, very different. The Belarusian regime is often surprisingly indifferent to such “provocation”, at least as long as the provocateurs are foreigners who will soon disappear back to where they came from. The regime is subjected to all manner of effrontery committed every day by hundreds of activists and diplomats inside and outside the country. And the kinds of reaction that we’ve seen recently are virtually unprecedented from a regime that is normally sly and methodical, not cack-handed and nervy. In other words: diplomacy’s “August crisis” sprang from very different sources.
For many years, the Swedish presence in Minsk has been a thorn in the side of Lukashenko and his henchmen; it has cultivated good relations with the opposition, and ambassador Eriksson’s personal engagement in Belarusian culture and language has been the source of displeasure (and, one might presume, disgrace) for one or another potentate. This is a county whose government has spent decades actively opposing many native forms of cultural expression. For the regime, the choice of language between Belarusian and the other national tongue (Russian) has—for reasons that once might have been justified but nowadays just seem paranoid—become a choice between disloyalty and loyalty. The ambassador who puts time and effort into learning the “opposition’s language” and, adding insult to injury, uses it as soon as he steps outside his front door, has, by the same logic, made the conscious choice to cause trouble and cross over to the dark side, the side that is hell-bent on bringing the nation to its knees.
It is about this that former presidential candidate, Uladzimir Njakljajeu, writes in the letter below—a letter that is an unequivocal testimony to the bond of solidarity that in recent years—and in silence, far away from flying teddy bears—has grown up between our countries.
Open letter to Mr Stefan Eriksson, extraordinary and plenipotentiary ambassador of the Kingdom of Sweden in the Republic of Belarus.
First let me extend my personal apologies, and those of the entire democracy of Belarus, for the brutal treatment to which the Belarusian regime has subjected Your Excellency. Yet while they have expelled you from our country, they can never banish you from our hearts.
As Swedish ambassador, you have clearly demonstrated what a person is capable of when devoted to his or her cause. Before your arrival here, Sweden was widely perceived as a very distant land. During your seven years of self-sacrificing work here, Sweden has become one of our closest friends. Thousands of Belarusians have not only been enriched by knowledge of your country and its people, thousands of Belarusians have also grown to love it and them. To my mind, this is the greatest, most noble form of diplomacy there is.
The regime’s propaganda has made you the victim of an absurd slander campaign. You have even been criticised for having used the Belarusian language! I would imagine that this is the first time in the history of diplomacy that we see a diplomat faulted for using the national tongue in the country of his assignment—that said, it is an exclusive accusation of which you ought to feel proud.
You have chosen to ground your work as Swedish ambassador to Belarus in our national culture, and in doing so you have achieved political results that are nothing short of brilliant. It is here where your unique diplomatic talents have manifested themselves, perhaps surprisingly for so many. Today, all I can say is that the Swedish government and the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs made an irreproachable decision in sending you to Belarus as your country’s representative.
One might ask: Why has the Belarusian regime set upon you with such vindictiveness? Well, the answer is not only to be sought in politics. For that is not where anything has happened, where the anomaly has occurred. In spite of everything, the EU nations have adopted a common policy and one or two ambassadors have even commented on our government more frankly than you have. No, this is not where the cause lies.
Nor does the cause lie in recent events: the Swedish aeroplane that flew into our airspace in support of human rights, and the Swedish singer’s meeting with seven political prisoners. These events merely precipitated a decision that the dictator had taken long before when he realised how dangerous your openness could be for his closed society. You had crossed a line that diplomacy, by dint of habit and tradition, had left behind; you had stepped onto our public stage and become a popular personage in Belarusian culture and politics, and did so with great success. And success is always accompanied by an equal measure of grudgingness. An envy that breeds hate.
For above all, the dictator is a tremendously envious, not to say jealous man by nature. A nature that demands undivided love for itself and nothing or no one else. This unconditional love of the masses, the imitations of it in the form of mass rallies, demonstrations and parades, is a physical need for the dictatorship. Without it, it withers and dies, and that is why all dictators, great and small alike, demand the same unconditional love, drinking it like vampires drink blood, full of hatred for all those who deprive them of even a single drop of this love.
And you did not only take a drop … Thanks to the unexpected, sudden love that you brought with you from Sweden to all the thousands of Belarusians, these thousands of Belarusians have come to love you in return. The regime will die, but our love for you, for Sweden and for the Swedes, will live on. And for that—well, perhaps it is worth being expelled.
Just the other day, one of our most famous musicians said that a statue of Stefan Eriksson will one day be raised outside the Swedish embassy in Minsk, that Belarusians will spin legends and tell stories about him to their children. And maybe one of these stories will begin like this: “Once upon a time, there lived in Belarus a Swede who was as good and wise as he was merry and charming. Like all Swedes, he loved Sweden with all his heart. But he also loved Belarus. He loved our country just as much as many of us who were born here”.
Believe me, my dear Ambassador, you have my eternal gratitude. We look forward to seeing you again one day in Belarus.
Leader of the organisation Gavary praudu! (Tell the truth!)
and presidential candidate