On July 4, Swedish activists funded by a Swedish public relations company dropped from a charter plane more than 800 teddy bears carrying pro-democracy and human rights messages near Minsk and the Belarusian town of Ivenets. In response, Lukashenko — who has ruled the country since 1994 — dismissed the head of the air defense, Dmitri Pakhmelkin, and the head of the border guards, Igor Rachkovsky, for failing to protect Belarus' borders. The reshuffling demonstrated how seriously Lukashenko took the incident.
Minsk then took additional measures that strained relations with the European Union. On Aug. 3, Belarus refused to renew the accreditation of Swedish Ambassador to Belarus Stefan Eriksson while the ambassador was on vacation. Eriksson reportedly had nothing to do with the teddy bear incident, but the Belarusian Foreign Ministry said he had been trying to destroy Swedish-Belarusian relations for some time.
In return, Stockholm expelled two Belarusian diplomats and refused to allow the new Belarusian ambassador to Sweden to begin his job in Stockholm. On Aug. 8, Belarus announced that it would withdraw its embassy staff from Sweden because the two remaining diplomats were not qualified to run the embassy in Stockholm (which also handles Belarus' diplomatic activity with Denmark and Norway). Arguing on the principle of mutuality, Minsk gave Stockholm until Aug. 30 to withdraw its embassy staff from Belarus.
In solidarity with Sweden, the European Union called for an Aug. 10 meeting of the EU Political and Security Committee to discuss the dispute. Despite making threats before the meeting, the committee took no concrete actions, such as the removal of other EU ambassadors from Belarus, and decided to review the possible expansion of sanctions against Belarus until the end of October.
Sweden's History with Belarus
Sweden and Belarus do not share a border, but the former Soviet country was once in Sweden's orbit. During the 17th century, Sweden was considered a great European power and ruled territory including northern Germany, parts of Russia and the Baltics (which at the same time were contested by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) just north of Belarus. Sweden's geopolitical interest in Belarus is explained by Stockholm's desire to contain Russia, which has strong ties with Belarus and competes in Sweden's sphere of influence.
Stockholm has openly supported Belarusian opposition and human rights groups while also attempting to establish links between Minsk and European institutions. In 2002, the United Kingdom and Sweden suggested that the European Union should give Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine some kind of special EU neighbor status to make it easier for the countries to establish trade relations with the union. Along with Poland, Sweden also initiated the Eastern Partnership in 2008, which was designed to bring Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia closer to the West. Even before Sweden opened an embassy in Minsk, the Nordic country was considered the European Union's largest donor to Belarus.
While attempting to draw Belarus closer to the West, however, Stockholm actively opposed Lukashenko's presidency. Prior to the Belarusian presidential election in March 2006, Sweden's then-foreign minister, Laila Freivalds, openly supported rallies held in Stockholm in favor of democratic changes in Belarus. The recently dismissed Ambassador Eriksson gained respect among Belarusian opposition groups and in 2009 participated in a rally in the Belarusian capital.
The recent tensions between Stockholm and Minsk are symptomatic of a broader trend of Belarus' alienation from the European Union. Earlier this year, EU diplomats were forced to leave Belarus after the union implemented new sanctions against the country. Sanctions had been in place since the early 2000s, but the new round — with particular support from Poland and Sweden — were implemented after the 2010 Belarusian presidential election, which the West considered unfair, and after Minsk suppressed subsequent opposition protests. However, the ambassadors returned to Minsk after about two months, and diplomatic ties resumed.
Belarus' relationships with neighboring Poland and Lithuania have also been strained recently. Both countries favor sanctions against Minsk and support Belarusian opposition groups based within their own borders.
Risk of Further Alienation
On July 16, however, Lithuanian Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius warned that new sanctions against Belarus would risk further alienating Minsk. Indeed, cutting off the former Soviet state from the West would drive it closer to Russia, making it easier for Moscow to increase its already strong influence in Belarus and destabilize the wider region. Lavrov's Aug. 14 visit and a phone call between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Lukashenko on the day Belarus decided to close its embassy in Sweden highlighted Moscow's strong ties with Minsk and likely role in the ongoing dispute with the West.
The European Union's lack of concrete action against Belarus after the Aug. 10 meeting shows that Europe is skeptical about the benefits of further alienating Minsk, especially prior to Belarus' Sept. 23 parliamentary elections. Withdrawing EU ambassadors would reduce the West's oversight in Belarus leading up to the elections. If the Europeans decide to expand sanctions against Belarus in October, it would more likely result from a suspect election outcome or crackdown on the opposition rather than the current dispute with Sweden.
For Stockholm, the feud is a reminder of what the weakening of EU institutions and the European economy means for Russia's resurgence in Sweden's historical sphere of influence. There is little Sweden can do in Belarus, and Stockholm is more concerned about a potential Russian resurgence in the Baltics. The dispute with Belarus also highlights the lack of leverage the European Union has in countries within the Eastern Partnership — Belarus in particular.