Belarus expelled Sweden’s ambassador Friday saying he tried to “destroy” ties with the ex-Soviet state run by authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, after a pro-democracy stunt by a Swedish firm.
The move came after Swedish activists illegally flew a plane into Belarus early last month and dropped hundreds of teddy bears attached to little parachutes carrying signs calling for freedom of speech and human rights.
Mr. Lukashenko dismissed the country’s top border control official and the top air force commander after the incident orchestrated by a Swedish advertising firm.
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt conceded the expulsion could be linked to the widely-reported teddy bear incident and called it “scandalous”.
He said he had consulted with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton about the row.
Ms. Ashton on Friday warned Belarus that “appropriate EU measures” could be taken in response to the expulsion.
“This decision runs counter to norms of relations between states. The European Union and Sweden are committed to the modernisation of Belarus and to the spread of European values, in particular democracy, human rights and the rule of law,” she said.
Belarus foreign ministry spokesman Andrei Savinykh denied that Stefan Eriksson was expelled, saying instead in more diplomatic language that “a decision was made not to renew his credentials.”
Mr. Eriksson’s “activity was aimed not at strengthening Belarusian-Swedish relations but destroying them,” he said.
The European Union in February recalled all its ambassadors to Belarus after Minsk decided to expel two of them in retaliation for new sanctions imposed by the bloc over the country’s rights record.
Mr. Eriksson was among the first to return to Minsk, in April.
Belarus is under a raft of sanctions by the European Union over the plight of political prisoners in the country.
The EU voiced deep concerns about reports of torture and inhumane jail conditions for political prisoners, including former presidential candidates Andrei Sannikaw and Mikalay Statkevich and activists Dzmitry Bandarenka, Dzmitry Dashkevich and Mikalay Awtukhovich.
“The Lukashenko regime’s expulsion of Sweden’s ambassador to Belarus is a serious breach of the norms for relations between states,” Mr. Bildt said in a statement, calling Belarus’s charges “without foundation”.
“That Sweden is broadly committed to democracy and human rights in Belarus is no secret, and Ambassador Eriksson has represented this Swedish policy in a creditable and important way,” he said.
“Ambassador Eriksson will continue his work with an even clearer focus on the work for democracy and human rights in Belarus,” he added.
Mr. Bildt also said Stockholm would not welcome a new ambassador named by Minsk to replace an envoy who left the post several weeks ago.
Mr. Bildt said on Twitter earlier that the expulsion was “scandalous” and “shows the nature of the regime”.
He told a telephone news conference that Mr. Eriksson, who took up the post in Minsk in 2008, was expelled because of meetings he has held with the Belarus opposition.
Belarus on Friday also threatened to take further action if needed.
“We are ready to make efforts to remain constructive in our ties,” the statement said. “At the same time, if the Swedish side seeks to exacerbate the situation, we would be forced to react accordingly.”