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Focus on Safety

Alexander Lukashenko, the president
of Belarus, the resolutely still
communist nation sandwiched between
Poland and Russia where the
Music Maker is made, is reputed to be
a man with a keen sense of humor.
I, personally don't believe it. Many
years ago, I was in Minsk in May (not
to be confused with Paris in the spring
time) when Belarus put on its annual
military parade. I'm normally a person
who dislikes parades of all kind,
but I loved this one!
It was an incredible spectacle. A
sea of people, most clothed in (what
else?) Soviet red, packed Minsk's largest
square which, while not as large as
Tianmen square in China, nevertheless
was impressively large.
There were flags and banners flying
everywhere, most with either
Lenin or Stalin on them. Mens with
guns marched. Tanks rolled. Missile
launchers...did whatever it is they
do. Girls in traditional regional dress, hair, danced, and aged veterans of the Great Patriotic War wandered through the crowd, their gold-filled teeth every bit as shiny as the rows of medals covering their breast pockets.
I'd never seen anything like it: the enthusiasm with which the flags were waved, the lusty belting out of the old patriotic songs, and the absolute veneration the people had for their ramrod stiff president, Alexander Lukashenko. I had to smile on seeing
how seriously these people took their communism.
Toward the end, Lukashenko left the dais from which he'd viewed the parade and made his way toward the black and bullet-proof Mercedes which was parked near Vladimir and I. Lukashenko was surrounded by a phalanx of bodyguards and the crowd surged forward to catch a glimpse of The Great Leader. I, caught in the middle, was swept along with it.
I'd never seen a dictator before, and now this legendary figure was close by. I'd read so much about him. Of the time he turned Vladimir Putin of Russia apoplectic by complaining petulantly at a press conference
that he "hadn't been fed yet." Or his hare-brained scheme to circumvent
Russian economic pressure on Belarus by buying oil in Venezuela and having it shipped overland by rail and then truck--seeming to be aware that this was anything but economically viable. Lukashenko had thrown the American ambassador out of Belarus, charging that the embassy was little more than a den of spies and--using one of his favorite words--provocateurs.
I thought the readers of this newsletter would like seeing a photo of the Great Leader in action and, raising the camera, snapped a photo.
Big mistake. Big, big mistake!
I have no idea how, but I swear they heard the 'click' of the camera. Lukashenko, hearing the sound, winced and bent over, ducking for cover. His bodyguards, lean and hard-jawed thugs, instantly turned in my direction, pointed me out and shouted angrily. They were like junk yard dogs.
My life flashed before my eyes. People stepped away from me. Vladimir, the young Belarussian man I've worked with for years, made himself scarce as well (the coward).
There was a gulag in my future.
Then, Lukashenko, seeing my camera and my Western clothing (I had no medals pinned to my chest and wasn't dressed in red) understood me for the idiot tourist I was and, scowling, said something to his bodyguards. Lukashenko then stepped into the Mercedes which roared off at high speed, bookended by SUVs containing his security detail.
Suffice it to say that things are a bit tense in Belarus from time to time. So imagine the reaction last summer when two Swedish advertising executives breached Belarus' air defense system and flew a single-engine airplane to Minsk, where they bombarded the capitol...with hundreds of teddy bears wearing sashes in support of free speech. The teddy bears drifted slowly down, each bear equipped with a teddy bear-sized parachute. Children scrambled for them.
It was beyond cute. But Alexander Lukashenko didn't see it that way. It's been said that you can try to topple a dictator with guns and bombs--they "get" that--but don't...whatever you do, make fun of them.
The Swedish demonstrators then turned their plane around and flew back to Vilnius from where they'd come. In a sense, they were quite lucky, because Belarus takes all aspects of civil order extremely seriously. In 1995, a hot air balloon that accidentally strayed into Belarussian airspace had been shot down and the two balloonists aboard were killed.
But there was method to their madness. "We did it the day after their independence day celebration, when they take all their military hardware and parade it through the streets," one of the two said afterward. "The military guys get together after the parade and throw a big party. So we thought if we did it early the next morning then the military wouldn't exactly be in peak condition."
The Swedes had been to Belarus. They'd seen how the vodka flowed like water even on non-holidays and had planned their attack accordingly.
The attack created an awkward situation for the police. They scrambled into action but soon realized they couldn't very well go ripping teddy bears out of the hands of excited children's arms--even if the cuddly animals did bear (no pun intended) dangerous slogans. So, mostly, they stood around in confusion and many, many children went home happy
The demonstration in support of free speech resonated throughout the country with the younger and intellectual set. Within those circles, the teddy bears became a potent symbol of opposition to Lukashenko's government. People soon began giving teddy bears as wedding and birthday presents.
Alexander Lukashenko was not amused and sprang into action. Terming the dropping of the furry ursines a "diplomatic incident," Lukashenko expelled all Swedish diplomats from Belarus and took several actions which led to the rise of tensions between Belarus and Lithuania.
The Swedish diplomats didn't appear to be much affected (in a sense, being expelled from Belarus may be seen as a promotion) nor were the Lithuanians, a gentle and calm people by nature, much bothered either.
This irked Lukashenko all the more. Realizing a firmer hand needed to be shown, Lukashenko fired Belarus' air defense chief and the head of the border guard service. (See prior travelogues "Beer, Illicit Electronics and a Beautiful Woman" and "Is Politics?" as examples of how competent the border guard service is).
But the poor,low-level border guard who either didn't see (no surprise there) or couldn't be bothered to pick up the phone (nor a surprise there) and report the incursion got the worst of it. Unlike the two generals, he was sentenced to two years at a maximum security correctional facility.
A response like that can best be seen as a joke, which leads to a sharing of a last Belarussian riddle:
Question: Why do ex-KGB officers make the best taxi drivers in Minsk?
Answer: Because you only need to tell them your name and they'll already know where you live.