Belarusian lawyer Victoria Fedorova had to leave her exile in Kyiv because of the Russian invasion. She now works in Vilnius and is a Steering Committee member of the International Accountability Platform for Belarus
»Lukashenka is in power just because he is supported by Putin. When Ukraine wins this war, it’s time for change also in Belarus«, explains Belarusian lawyer Victoria Fedorova, who represents the International Committee for Investigation of Torture in Belarus in the Steering Committee of the International Accountability Platform for Belarus (IAPB).
– When? Not if Ukraine wins?
»Oh yes: When. It is a matter of time«.
Despite her optimism concerning the outcome of the Russian war against Ukraine, Victoria Fedorova readily admits that the invasion has diverted attention from the human rights situation in Belarus.
»It is our main fear«, as she puts it.
»The focus has changed. It is important to support Ukraine and of course we do. But Ukraine already has a lot of things which Belarus doesn’t. Ukraine already has its own trials and prosecution of war crimes and investigation under the International Criminal Court in the Hague. We don’t have all that«, says Victoria Fedorova, who we met during her recent visit to DIGNITY’s headquarters in Copenhagen.
What Belarus has, however, are civil society organisations like Victoria Fedorova’s International Committee, working in exile with the documentation of human rights violations for the use for future prosecution – either in Belarus after a regime change, under the United Nations or in another country that follows the principle of universal jurisdiction and is willing to prosecute perpetrators of gross human rights violations in Belarus.
Before the 2020 election in Belarus, Victoria Fedorova, who is an expert on international law, headed the Legal Initiative – an organisation that dates back to 1996 and has helped victims of human rights violations and worked with education on human rights.
Five organisations formed the International Committee
After the massive human rights violations surrounding the 2020 election, the Legal Initiative joined four other Belarusian organisations in forming the International Committee as an umbrella organisation.
At first, Victoria Fedorova was able to continue her human rights work in Belarus.
»We had an office in the centre of Minsk and people came to the office for interviews about the human rights violations around the election«.
But soon after the election, President Lukashenka’s security forces started arresting the activists of various human rights organisations.
»I started moving from apartment to apartment every two weeks and stopped using phones. And then, in March 2021, a volunteer in our organisation, who had a coordinating role, was detained and the security forces got access to his computer and telephone which contained a lot of information about me and my colleagues. I knew that I had only one or two days to leave the country«, explains Victoria Fedorova.
She escaped through forests across the unguarded eastern border into Russia and from there to Kyiv in Ukraine where she established a small office together with other exiled Belarusians. After the Russian invasion in February, she had to leave again and now works out of Vilnius in Lithuania.
Online interviews with victims
The International Committee still has a network inside Belarus and conducts interviews with victims of the ongoing human rights violations since the election campaign of 2020. The interviews are now done only online through secure channels to ensure that confidential and sensitive information is not intercepted by Lukashenka’s security forces.
»People still want to share their stories. They know about the Legal Initiative, which is an old and well-known organisation. And they trust us and the human rights organisation Viasna, which is also part of the IAPB«, says Victoria Fedorova.
The IAPB was established in 2021 on DIGNITY’s initiative and is supported financially by around 20 states. Part of this funding makes it possible for Victoria Fedorova to work full time on gathering information about and exposing the human rights violations of the Lukashenka regime. Her job consists of international advocacy, meetings with the UN and other international partners, and work in IAPB’s Steering Committee.
Victoria Fedorova has now adapted to life in the growing exile community of Belarusians in Lithuania. The main difference of exile life in Ukraine and in the EU and NATO member state Lithuania is the price level of the daily necessities. She does not necessarily feel safer in Vilnius that she did in Kyiv:
»We have seen the diversion of the plane«, says Victoria Fedorova with reference to the incident in May 2021 when Belarusian authorities ordered a Ryanair jet en route from Athens to Vilnius to land in Minsk. The landing in Belarus made it possible for security forces to arrest an opposition activist.
»It means that everything is possible. You are really not safe anywhere«, says Victoria Fedorova.