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April 2023 Blog: ‘The Virus of Truth’ – Protests and Documentation as an Impetus for Transitional Justice in Belarus

In August 2020 massive protests outbroke in Belarus as a result of what numerous observers have classified as fraudulent presidential elections. The elections were violently suppressed by the government, with more draconian regulations imposed on freedom of speech and assembly in the country. According to a report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, it is estimated that at least 100,000 people fled Belarus after the 2020 events, while mass-scale arbitrary arrests and detention of protestors and opposition followed.[1] As of 21 March 2023, according to Human Rights Center Viasna, Lukashenka regime holds 1,459 protestors and opposition members in detention, often in conditions, which would amount to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, with accounts of torture.[2]

The situation in Belarus poses a question of how realistic is a much longed-for change in the country, how this change will be fostered and realised, and what could be done now. It also probes us to ask what the prospects for transitional justice are in the country that is currently being held hostage by an old elite, unwilling to give up power or change the status quo, when violations are ongoing, and prospects for justice are bleak.

transitional justice blog photo

Transitional justice is a whole range of processes a society undertakes to reckon with the legacies of oppressive regime or conflict, to break away from the oppressive past and to move forward. Though some processes relating to transitional justice efforts could be traced to centuries ago, the term ‘transitional justice’ as we know it today has gained prominence in the past three decades, marked by transitions from military dictatorships in South America and regime change in African continent countries. Some of the most known examples of transitional justice processes are the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission which examined the legacies of apartheid in South Africa, and the United Nations-established criminal justice mechanisms in the aftermath of mass scale atrocities – the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia. Some of the mechanisms of transitional justice include trials, truth, reparation, institutional reform, guarantee of non-recurrence, and memorialisation.

The pervasiveness of oppressive regimes, strongly entrenched structures of corruption, and difficulty to foster change, challenge the possibility of ‘transition’ in transitional justice in such settings. A growing number of scholarship demonstrated that it is never too late or too early to speak about justice.[3] Some forms of transitional justice take place in countries where violence, oppression or war continue, or in countries with long-term established democratic institutions, which are not immune from violence and oppressive past and present as well.[4] Belarus represents a case of numerous, yet, interconnected transitional justice paths. Transitional justice or transitional justice-related processes in Belarus started with the quest for justice for Soviet crimes before the breakup of the Soviet Union. In the late 1980s, the Belarusian Popular Front was established which drew attention to Soviet crimes and the necessity to address them.[5]Since the 1990s, an unofficial strive for transitional justice was present in the country. For instance, a grassroots non-profit initiative created a Virtual Museum of the Soviet Repression in Belarus in 2014, following the collection of documentation since 2007.[6] Or, in 2015, in Minsk, people organised a ‘citizens’ tribunal’ to investigate Stalinist crimes.[7] These efforts ‘from below’ did not resonate with the state and were tolerated as long as they did not threaten the status quo of the ruling elite.[8] A new wave and quest for transitional justice in Belarus, or the impetus for change, started over again together with mobilisation of the population as a response to fraudulent elections of 2020 and structural problems the country is facing for decades.

Whereas most transitional justice measures in Belarus would be possible only after the official regime change, some transitional justice measures can take place in light of ongoing oppression, such as documentation of violations. The documentation of violations became a new norm. In Belarus, extensive evidence has been collected by Belarusian civil society, notably, the Coordination Council, Human Rights Centre Viasna, Belarusian Helsinki Committee and internationally, through the International Accountability Platform for Belarus (IAPB), which consists of Redress, Danish Institute Against Torture (Dignity), International Committee on Investigation of Torture in Belarus. They collected 2,052 survivor-victims and witnesses’ testimonies, gathered 20,000 documents, and 600,000 files are available open-source.[9]Four countries expressed their willingness to exercise universal jurisdiction and prosecute the perpetrators outside of Belarus.[10] This, in turn, opens numerous questions, as to how the exercise of international justice will take place on a practical level and what would the effect of these measures be in terms of their legitimacy locally. The pursuit of international justice might also mean reprisals from the state, particularly against the arbitrarily detained victims and their relatives, and the population at large.

Documentation of ongoing violence conducted by civil society is indispensable not only for fostering change but also in the aftermath of violence; it is proven to be indispensable for criminal trials, for lustration measures, for making the truth about the past known, creating the basis for transitional justice when the change of regime will happen. Documented evidence also showcases the nature of violations that are ongoing not only to the international community but, importantly, to people in Belarus. It is recommended that the documentation is coordinated between different institutions conducting it, to avoid replication of efforts and to prevent losing important evidence. It is also important that the documentation is conducted ethically, not in a predatory form, with due regard to the needs and interests of victims, and in a way that does not (re)traumatise them and does not force them to retell the same story over again, with due safeguards to their and interviewer’s wellbeing.

Whereas seizing the ongoing violations and freeing political prisoners are the immediate needs of victims, the change of regime is another priority, as it represents the quest for freedom that many victims paid a high price for. Exposing truth may result in an explosion in a totalitarian system generated by the ‘virus of truth.’[11] As argued by Václav Havel, any form of ‘expression of life’ that exposes the system matters, even if in other contexts such actions might go unnoticed. The revolt in totalitarian or post-totalitarian settings proves to be nearly impossible because even if a few (or many) will oppose, they will be oppressed by a more powerful apparatus.[12] He gives an example of a greengrocer, and what would happen if he stopped displaying a pro-regime sign on his window. Sometimes it takes one person to show that the emperor is naked. This act, however small, as argued by Havel, demonstrates that the space that the alternative occupies does not matter. Even if civil society feels small and powerless, the magnitude of opposition is not as important as an act of opposition and articulating the alternatives per se. For totalitarian and post-totalitarian structures, which rely entirely on ‘living in a lie,’ ‘living in the truth’ represents the biggest threat. That is why, according to Havel, people like Solzhenitsyn were exiled, not because they are powerful but because the truth that they expose has such a strong force. The role of greengrocer was and is played by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the opposition members, and those engaged in everyday resistance.

Civil society, for now, remains the only accessible platform for victims in Belarus. Whereas mass mobilisation is often seen as a prescription against authoritarian rule, it has proven, on example of Belarus, that the deeply entrenched systems surpassed the democratic impulse. Paul Gready and Simon Robins, when advocating for transformative justice, argued that protest and documentation have transformative potential.[13] They contended that the documentation of resistance ‘illuminates possibilities for the agency, solidarity, and innovation… and offers a more promising basis for political reconciliation.’[14] The mass mobilisation in the summer of 2020 demonstrated a rupture, solidarity, and agency, and gave hope that that the Spring for Belarus is yet to come.


Dr Selbi Durdiyeva, Postdoctoral Researcher, Postcolonial Hierarchies in Peace and Conflict, Center for Conflict Studies, Philipps University, Marburg


[11] Vaclav Havel, The Power of the Powerless: Citizens Against the State in Central Eastern Europe: Citizens Against the State in Central Eastern Europe: Citizens Against the State in Central Eastern Europe, 44-46.

[13] Paul Gready and Simon Robins, ‘From Transitional to Transformative Justice: A New Agenda for Practice’ (2014) 8 International Journal of Transitional Justice 339, 356.

[14] Paul Gready and Simon Robins, ‘From Transitional to Transformative Justice: A New Agenda for Practice’ (2014) 8 International Journal of Transitional Justice 339, 356.