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Belarus president fires foreign minister weeks after teddy bear row

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko fired his foreign minister Monday, weeks after an imaginative pro-democracy protest that saw teddy bears dropped from the sky over Belarus brought the authoritarian regime some unwanted international attention.

Lukashenko's office, which announced the dismissal of Sergei Martynov, 59, who had held the post since 2003, did not provide any reasons for the decision. Lukashenko named 54-year-old Vladimir Makei, previously his chief-of-staff, as the country's new foreign minister.

More than 800 stuffed animals – each with an individual parachute – were dropped from a small planeby four advertising professionals from Sweden to raise awareness of human rights issues. The action was inspired by the arrest in February of Belarusian activist Paval Vinahradau, who was detained for staging a toyprotestinMinsk.

The group told NBC News they hoped an ensuing diplomatic spat between Belarus and Sweden would increase pressure on Lukashenko.

The Belarusian president also fired the generals in charge of air defense and the border patrol after the protest, and police arrested two civilians — a blogger who posted pictures of the teddy bears on his website and a man who rented an apartment to one of the Swedes during his short stay in Minsk.

The move damaged already strained relations between Minsk, which expelled the Swedish ambassador on Aug. 3, and the European Union, which has long criticized Lukashenko's policies and has imposed travel bans and asset freezes on him and other senior officials.

Could teddy bears unsettle 'Europe's last dictator'?

The EU said in a statement on Monday that Makei was one of the targeted officials.

"Mr. Makei is currently subject to EU restrictive measures. In the context of the upcoming review of restrictive measures, in the autumn of this year, the EU will assess his situation," it said.

"The EU confirms its policy of critical engagement towards Belarus and reiterates its firm commitment to strengthening its engagement with the Belarusian people and civil society and to supporting the democratic aspirations of the Belarusian people."

A country of about 9.5 million, Belarus is one of the most repressive states in Europe.

In power since 1994, Lukashenko has tolerated little dissent and routinely locked up political opponents. In 2004, he amended the constitution's two-term presidential limit, a decision harshly criticized by Western powers, including the Bush administration whichdescribedhim as the "last dictator in Europe" in charge of an "outpost of tyranny.”

The latest wave of EU sanctions was triggered by his government's crackdown on opposition after a December 2010 presidential election.

Lukashenko won a fourth term in office at the time but faced large public protests and allegations of vote-rigging afterward.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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