Five years after the assassination of a journalist, Ukraine is left with more questions than answers

Who killed the star Belarusian-Russian-Ukrainian journalist Pavel Sheremet – and why?

Oliver Carroll
Moscow Correspondent
Tuesday 20 July 2021 19:41
<p>A man holds Pavel Sheremet’s portrait at his memorial in Kiev on Tuesday, on the site where the journalist’s car exploded five years ago</p>

A man holds Pavel Sheremet’s portrait at his memorial in Kiev on Tuesday, on the site where the journalist’s car exploded five years ago

The tears were flowing as Liudmila Sheremet made her way down the avenue. She had to get to work, she told herself. Not to tune in to her son’s morning show and greet him – in the way she usually did, from hundreds of miles away in Minsk – with a smile, a wave and a “hi, son,” or a “why are you in that scruffy T-shirt?” No, to get to her desk, open her computer, and to hope what her granddaughter had just told her was an awful mistake.

A short while earlier, at 7.40am on 20 July 2016, her son, the journalist Pavel Sheremet, had begun his own commute. He sat in the driver’s seat of the red Subaru he shared with his partner, and began the short journey to Radio Vesti across town in central Kiev. It would be touch and go whether he’d get there in time for the 8am start, but his colleagues had become used to his late arrivals. This time, however, he would never make it, thwarted by a remote explosive device detonated from under his seat. He died in an ambulance on the way to hospital.

Five years on – Tuesday marks the tragic anniversary – Sheremet’s assassination continues to throw up more questions than answers. A murky Ukrainian investigation has belatedly produced five suspects, but even the president is unsure the evidence proves their guilt. If they are the hitmen, as his government claims, there is no clear answer as to who could have procured them. And there is no consolidated opinion about what the motive might have been.

Liudmila Sheremet says there isn’t a minute when she doesn’t think about her son. Not about the ongoing court case – that isn’t in the “slightest bit interesting”, she claims – but what he would have made of it all.

There are many parallels with the murder of Boris Nemtsov near the Kremlin in 2015. Then and now, the hit men have been identified, but key evidence like CCTV footage went missing, and we are no closer to knowing who did it

Ekaterina Sergatskova, journalist and close friend of Sheremet

“I think the one thing he’d be worried about is innocent people suffering,” she says. “He’d be concerned that officials aren’t looking to pin the blame on scapegoats.”

Enemies every way you look

Pavel Sheremet grew up in Minsk, Belarus, with an unusual sense of justice. He was afraid of nothing, and told everyone the truth "whether they liked it or not”. Even teachers would be at the receiving end of his lectures: especially when one decided to raise the marks of classmates after their parents had helped with school repairs. After school, Pavel studied banking, but money counting was never his thing, and so he became a journalist.

Pavel’s interest for everything made him a star of Belarusian journalism, latterly as a foreign correspondent for the Russian state broadcaster ORT. It was in this capacity that he made his first international headlines, jailed in 1997 by the fledgling dictator Alexander Lukashenko, after filing a report on smuggling at the Lithuanian-Belarus border. The famous dispatch saw him demonstrate gaps in the border by literally stepping across them. He was convicted for illegal border crossing.

Sheremet would only be freed after an extraordinary intervention by Russian president Boris Yeltsin, who unexpectedly denied his Belarusian counterpart an airspace corridor.

“Free Sheremet first,” was Yeltsin’s famous retort. Lukashenko eventually backed down and released Sheremet, setting up a lifetime of enmity – and a sense of deja-vu when it came to stories involving airspace and the Belarusian-Lithuanian border.

Sheremet moved to Russia in 2000, where he would make a second home, and front a flagship weekly news programme on state TV. He would later describe this as a “shameful” period of his career, as, like many others in the system, he struggled between conscience and compromise with increasingly pro-Kremlin managers. In 2011, Sheremet relocated to Kiev, still working for Russian state TV, but increasingly disillusioned with it.

The impossibility of objective coverage on Russian TV following the 2014 revolution saw him switch completely to Ukrainian publications, and publicly denounce the Kremlin’s undeclared war with its Slavic neighbour. He was later granted Ukrainian citizenship.

His uncompromising reporting earned him the enmity of at least five presidents, and has made the investigation of his death a complicated maze with few easy answers. He was under surveillance by Moscow, Minsk and Kiev, friends and family say. Latterly, he complained he was being followed by what he believed were officers of the Ukrainian security services.

“We thought he was safe enough in Kiev, but a friend later told me he seemed worried before his death, that he was carrying serious baggage,” she said. “She asked him what was up, and he said he was being watched.”

The official version

Questions about the thoroughness of the official Ukrainian investigation into Sheremet’s death persisted from the start. Over a hundred hours of relevant video footage only appeared after journalists launched their own probe. A documentary film released ten months after his death revealed missed leads and unfathomable gaps in the official versions of police and security services.

Ukrainian interior minister Arsen Avakov tendered his resignation last week

Ukrainian authorities have persisted with a theory that the assassination was carried out in Russian interests, and designed to destabilise Kiev. In December 2019 with newly elected president Volodymyr Zelensky in charge, interior ministry officials identified five suspects. All were nationalistic-leaning veterans of Ukraine’s undeclared war with Russia.

It remains unclear how veterans of the war with Russia might have been working in Moscow’s interests, and the evidence against them is not watertight. All insist on their innocence. At his annual press conference this year, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky seemed to suggest he shared the doubts, revealing he had been in correspondence with one of the suspects.

Ukraine’s interior minister Arsen Avakov would not remain in his job if it was discovered people had been illegally put on trial, Zelensky revealed. Last week, the longtime minister tendered his resignation. It is unclear if the two matters are in any way connected.

A Belarusian footprint

A second, dramatic shift in the investigation came in January 2021, when Igor Makar, a former Belarusian special forces officer, claimed Alexander Lukashenko signed off on an assassination plan in 2012.

To back up his argument, Makar released a contemporaneous recording of Vadim Zaitsev, Belarus’s security chief. The man purported to be Zaitsev describes Sheremet as a “massive pain in the arse”. The recording continues: “We’ll plant a bomb and this f***** rat will be taken down in f****** pieces – legs in one direction, arms in the other direction.”

Segvil Musayeva, editor in chief of Ukrainian Pravda, the famed investigative newspaper founded by Sheremet’s partner Olena Prytula, and where he latterly worked, says she has seen enough in the evidence presented by Makar to be persuaded by this explanation of her colleague’s assassination.

One theory the investigation explored was that the Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko, signed off on Sheremet’s assassination

Sheremet was, after all, a thorn in Lukashenko’s side throughout his life, supporting dissidents and protests – and financing an opposition newspaper, The Belarusian Partisan, via a charity in Lithuania. He was a personal enemy of the erratic leader.

“We know Lukashenko has no use-by date when it comes to matters of revenge,” Musayeva says. The murder, creepily enough, was carried out on the anniversary of Lukashenko’s first inauguration: “I can’t prove it, and he may well have used Ukrainian killers, but the audio recording and Makar’s own testimony do fit the other pieces of evidence we have.”

Others are more sceptical of this theory.

Irina Khalip, a journalist, friend and colleague of Sheremet from Minsk, says the chronology does not fit the contours of Belarusian politics. Even if Lukashenko had ordered an assassination in 2012, this was a period of protests and extreme tensions: Khalip herself was under house arrest and surveillance. By 2016, however, the Belarusian leader had moved on, and was enjoying a renaissance in relations with Europe. He had little to gain from the murder of a historical enemy.

“Lukashenko was swimming in chocolate by then, freeing political prisoners, and even positioning himself as a great peacemaker in Ukraine,” she says. Yes, his “death squads” had been implicated in multiple murders and disappearances, including Sheremet’s own cameraman Dmitry Zavadsky, but did not need four years to prepare a hit: “If they get the order, they do it quickly, so for me the logic doesn’t work.”

Ekaterina Sergatskova, an editor and close friend of Sheremet since she moved to Kiev from Crimea in 2014, concurs: “We can’t rule anything out, but Pavel had become a marginal figure in Belarus by 2016, and at the same time Lukashenko was not quite the crazy dictator he is now.”

Closer to home

Sergatskova, whose Zaborona website has probed a number of dropped investigation leads, says the most likely explanation remains the most troubling one: that Pavel was targeted by shadowy forces in the Ukrainian state as part of an attack on free media. That arguably provides the most logical answer for the sluggishness of the official investigation, the suggestions he had been followed, and the disappearance of key evidence.

“There are many parallels with the murder of Boris Nemtsov near the Kremlin in 2015,” she says. “Then and now, the hit men have been identified, but key evidence like CCTV footage went missing, and we are no closer to knowing who did it.”

Leaked correspondence purporting to involve Artyom Shevchenko, press officer to the interior ministry, later suggested counter-intelligence had ‘screwed up’ and ‘dragged others’ into their mess

Certainly, Sheremet was a larger-than-life character, whose fearlessness represented the sharpest of Ukrainian journalism. Just two weeks before his murder, he was harangued by a press officer for not being more polite in his questioning of then president Poroshenko. During his time working for Ukrainian Pravda, the country’s most aggressive and professional investigative newspaper, he was a constant irritation to authorities. He was also the partner of Olena Prytula, the paper’s co-founder. Some have suggested she may have been the real target.

For all its post-Maidan political advances, Ukraine remains a dangerous place for journalism. Those asking the wrong questions at the wrong time risk physical assault and worse, and a culture of contract killings is undeniable.

President Zelensky, who has not always appeared well-briefed on the investigation, has refused to rule out the involvement of elements within Ukraine’s security services. At a press conference earlier this year, he said there was a “possibility” that figures connected to counter-intelligence in the former administration were involved.

Leaked correspondence purporting to involve Artyom Shevchenko, press officer to the interior ministry, later suggested counter-intelligence had “screwed up” and “dragged others” into their mess. Mr Shevchenko declined the opportunity to respond to the leak, or explain why the course of the official interior ministry investigation had proved so disappointing.

The fallout

The grisly act of 20 July 2016 was a political assassination, and it was investigated appallingly. This much is undeniable. But the challenge of identifying who was behind it is at least in part a consequence of there being no indisputable benefit for any of the obvious suspects.

“Five years on, I can’t understand who needed this murder,” says Khalip. “It has done nothing for no one, provided no political dividends, delivered nothing but grief to colleagues, relatives and friends.”

But the fact that no one has been held responsible has had obvious effects for those working in his place. It has resulted in at least two waves of self-censorship, says Sergatskova.

In the murder’s immediate aftermath, many journalists “held back” from broaching the most sensitive of topics. Later, the announcement that war veterans may have been involved meant reporters became subjected to harassment from nationalistic forces. Some cut off reporting from the trial altogether.

Liudmila Sheremet, who says she now believes the answer to her son’s death “likely” lies in Kiev, insists the search for truth has only one beneficiary: Ukraine.

“Pavel is no more, that’s all I care about,” she says. “Ukraine will decide in its own way how it wants to investigate, and if indeed it wants to give its people and its journalists the security of tomorrow.”

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