Marta Dyczok discusses the killing of journalist Pavel Sheremet in Kyiv
Ukraine’s National Police Chief Khatia Dekanoidze was on the scene almost immediately. She said she would personally oversee the investigation. A few hours later, Ukraine’s President Poroshenko called a meeting of the country’s top security officials. Part of the meeting was televised. Poroshenko condemned the killing, said the perpetrators would be found, and that Ukraine was asking the FBI and other international agencies for help.
Sheremet was 44 years old. He received international awards for his work, but was imprisoned then exiled from his native Belarus for his reporting. He continued working in Russia, but by 2014 he found the censorship intolerable. So he headed for Ukraine. He found work at the internet publication Ukrains’ka Pravda, and fell in love with the owner, Olena Prutyla. He was driving her car when he was killed.
Pavel gave what would be his last interview to Hromadske Radio the day before he was killed. He said he was learning to speak Ukrainian.
Ukraine Calling* brings you Andriy Kulykov, who conducted the interview, Kennan Institute in Kyiv Director Kateryna Smagliy, and publisher/entrepreneur Paul Niland. We talk about who Sheremet was, why he was killed, and more.
MARTA DYCZOK: Ukraine hit the international headlines this week when journalist Pavlo Sheremet was killed in a car bomb in central Kyiv, and people here in Kyiv are still reeling from that. I’d like to start with Mr. Kulykov: you knew Pavlo Sheremet as a colleague, as a friend, and you did what turned out to be the very last interview Pavlo Sheremet ever gave, the day before he was killed. Andriy, you knew Pavlo Sheremet, could you tell our listeners what Pavlo was like as a journalist, as a colleague, and in your opinion, why was he targeted? This was not a random act of terrorism, this was a targeted killing.
ANDRIY KULYKOV: Pavlo or Pavel, as the Belorussian form of his name, was a very forthcoming person. He was the kind of person that did not like to hide his feelings and emotions, but he coped with them rather well when it came to his writings and most of what he wrote was well substantiated and was not the result of emotions but rather an attempt to analyze what was going on. He was a person that came to Ukraine because he was first denied the right to properly work in his native Belarus, and then in Russia where he went from Belarus. I rarely saw a person who would come to Ukraine and so fully accept this country and rarely have I seen a person that was so fully accepted by many, many people in the country. Although he stayed a citizen of Russia, I think that Pavlo lived a life of a Ukrainian and tragically he died the death of a Ukrainian. Why he was targeted, well first of all he was rather well known, I would not say he enjoyed a nationwide popularity with every Ukrainian –
I don’t think any journalist apart from very few but –
AK: Well ok, but he was a person to whom many of the thinking strata would turn their attention. Not necessarily they liked what he wrote or what they heard, he was a very interesting radio personality of course, and to kill such a person means to draw attention to what they intend to do, what they intended to do is not a question. Whoever did this, I think the final aim was to scare or to intimidate Ukrainian journalists apart from or simultaneously trying to further destabilize the situation in the country. And one more thing, to kill Pavlo Sheremet was very important because he was a success story; he was a success story although he had to leave two countries, because of his professional morals, because he wanted to find a free country. And after Belarus and after Russia he finds a place for him in Ukraine, which strives to be democratic, and his life and work here was proof that Ukraine at least wants to become a democratic country so to kill such a person –
AK: Yeah, it means to show: don’t go here, they do not read journalists properly; Ukraine is dangerous for decent people, basically.
Well that actually leads to what I wanted to ask Mrs. Smagliy about. You are a long-time observer, commentator on Ukrainian politics: what does the response of the Ukrainian authorities tell us about what’s happening in Ukraine today? We saw the head of Ukraine’s national police on the crime site almost immediately, saying “I’m going to get to the bottom of this”. Within hours of the killing, Ukraine’s president Poroshenko is calling his security advisors and in a televised statement saying “we do not condone this killing, we are going to get to the bottom of this, and I assign each of you personally to get your best people working on this”. This is quite the contrast from 2000, when another journalist disappeared and his headless corpse appeared. What does the reaction of the Ukrainian authorities tell us about what’s going on in this country?
KATERYNA SMAGILY: Well I think we can observe that there is both an internal and external context to this brutal murder. As you have noticed they, Ukrainian authorities, tried to link this killing to the possible external influence on Ukraine, and that was what president Poroshenko said, and that was kind of indirectly reconfirmed by Prosecutor General Lutsenko. And to some extent, we can see the parallels with the murder of Gongadze because just as in 2000 when Georgiy disappeared, Ukraine was on a track record of success. You know, Ukraine had a lot of western partners, relations with the West were on the rise, president Clinton visited this country three times, in 1994, 95, and then just three months before Georgiy disappeared in June 2000, and clearly our northern neighbours would probably not allow Ukraine to succeed, not allow Ukraine to tighten its bonds with NATO and the EU and they needed to demonstrate once again that this is a criminal state where journalists are murdered, a failed state basically. So today, when Ukraine is once again demonstrating that it is a successful country, full of promise and full of potential, and we just had a successful visit by the Canadian prime minister Trudeau when the free trade agreement with Canada was signed, when our vice prime minister for European Integration Klympush suddenly announces Ukraine may have the visa liberation regime with the EU, Ukraine sends too many positive signals. Yes, we have a lot of problems that we publicly discuss, but there is this promise of success. So there is a parallel, so you need to cut the success story short. The second parallel is that we need to create some destabilisation in Ukraine, some internal destabilisation, because when Gongadzee disappeared the Ukraine Without Kuchma movement started and today this social upheaval, you know, there are some social motives which can push Ukrainians to fight against the Poroshenko government because of the rising utility tariffs, because people are dissatisfied with the pace of reform, we already see that people and journalists who are now in parliament like Serhiy Leshchenko all associated with Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada, they already found the new movement, the Democratic Alliance, had united with members of Poroshenko bloc and we saw the anti-corruption campaign led by Saakashivili, so yes indeed there is a growing opposition to the Poroshenko government, so the murder of such a figure as Pavlo Sheremet who is civil law husband of the founder and owner of Ukrayinska Pravda, Olena Prytula, can again make them push changes to be stronger, and finally I fully agree with Andriy Kulykov, who had used this term already, Ukraine is a “failed state” and we could observe that –
Sorry, Ukraine is a failed state?
KS: That the murder of Pavlo Sheremet could be presented by some circles in Russia and Russian journalists as an indication that Ukraine is a failed state because journalists are killed in broad daylight. And, by the way, a lot of Russian commentators and journalists have immediately jumped in, literally minutes after the murder, and started kind of using the murder to create this narrative to say look Ukraine is a country where the government is corrupt, where the government is not caring for its own people but is killing people in the east. It is a country where a journalist that once abandoned Russia and Belarus in a hope that he will find free democratic Ukraine, basically his dreams had not been fulfilled because journalists are here being murdered. So we see this narrative, which serves as an indication that Russia and Russian secret services and Russian FSB agents, who, as we know, are still present in this country, could indeed stand behind the murder.
This is a horrific killing, it is a targeted assassination, and every death needs to be investigated, and I want to know what you think, all of you, what role journalism has to play in this? I mean there’s police that will be doing their investigation, but there’s investigative journalism looking into various other things, is there a role here to play for journalists? Andriy you said journalists, this was meant to intimidate journalists, but perhaps this could be a way of invigorating journalists to do more investigative journalism, not just about offshore companies, but about all sorts of things.
PAUL NILAND: I think that should be the response, I think the response from journalists should not be to be intimidated but to write more, we don’t know what Pavel was working on, we don’t know whether there was some ant-corruption investigation, something like that he was about to break, but I think that everyone putting that into the public sphere should re-determine themselves. They should not be intimidated and not change the path that they’re on. You mentioned early on that it was a directed killing and it was a terrorist act, but it’s like any other terrorist act, what do you do? You can’t give into the terrorists, you can’t change your behaviour, you can’t succumb to what their demands are and give up. What did Pavel do? He never gave up his morals, like you said Andriy, he never gave up his morals, he refused to, and we should do the same and more.
KS: Yes, I fully agree, and today again Canadian historian Taras Kuzio has published a very powerful piece where he kind of holds president Poroshenko to continue all the promises that had been given by ex-president Yushchenko and the Council of Europe, where he promised that the Gongadze case would be fully disclosed and those who not only committed this crime but also those who ordered this crime would be put to justice. Still, although the Ukrainian society and the international community kind of have their idea of who could have ordered this crime, those people are still around, they even participate in the Minsk process, and President Yushchenko and current Preisdent Poroshenko, who at the time of Yushscheko served as the chief of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, they still are very silent about opening all the details of that case, and that is why the parallels are there and that is why Katya Gorchinskaya and other journalists who were colleagues of Pavlo Sheremet, they call on President Poroshenko and demand full transparency and open discussion with regard to how the authorities react these days to all this investigative journalism pieces that had been produced now en masse. We have so many investigative journalists in the country who produce TV shows, radio programs, and publications almost daily –
And there’s no accountability, or not enough accountability…
KS: There’s not enough enforcement, the legal system simply doesn’t work, so this is the key problem. And I remember that a week ago when the International Renaissance Foundation, this is a Soros foundation in Ukraine, held a small expert meeting with Pavlo Sheremet was present. Yevhen Bystrytsky has posted the words which Pavlo said during this meeting and he asked a few rhetorical questions –
KS: Well I can quote, like “what exactly are we concerned about? Are we talking about clots blocking the reform process or about the fact that it is necessary to extinguish the fire? Or are we scared of the revenge of the opposition, the pro-Russian forces, or greater social radicalisation? We must as a society understand what we are afraid of.” So where is the enemy? Where is the enemy? Is it external or internal? And Pavel said in his opinion, the enemy was internal because the enemy was injustice, the old system of corrupt politicians that still exist as a tight group who still cover for themselves and who block any real, not on the surface, reforms. You know, which would push the society to real, honest debate about what kind of reforms we as a society would expect. So he said he saw no changes, he saw no real breakthrough. And his last words were “what we see now that the old social consensus fell to its hands and knees,” because there is a civil society in Ukraine which will all know is very strong, but in addition to this five percent of civil activists who still fight very hard for the Euromaidan ideals, we have ninety-five percent of this country which is tired of reforms, people who are not ready to stand up for their rights, and who basically see a country where there is so little justice, where the living politicians cover up for the injustice. So what is the incentive for them to fight for this country and to defend the leaders who they elected a few years ago on so many sacrifices that had already been given?
Andriy, you wanted to jump in here
AK: Yes, Kateryna’s mention of former president Yushchenko reminds me that some of the most famous criminal cases in Ukraine’s history remain either non-investigated or many people believe that they haven’t been investigated to bottom. The killing of Gongadze that Kateryna mentioned is one of those where many people say that although the actual perpetrators were seized, the people who commissioned the killing are still unexposed. And the alleged poisoning of Mr. Yushchenko when he was a presidential candidate is still an enigma for many, many people, and I hear that there is still a chance and a very sad chance if this happens that Pavel Sheremet’s killing may go un-investigated and unpunished.
*This conversation is a transcript of Hromadske Radio’s Ukraine Calling show hosted by Marta Dyczok. It has been republished here courtesy of Hromadske Radio.
Kateryna Smagliy is the Director of the Kennan Institute’s Kyiv Office.
Paul Niland is a longtime Kyiv resident and Founder of Statement Email Ltd.
Andriy Kulykov is the Chairman of NGO “Hromadske Radio”. Professional TV & Radio host, translator.
Marta Dyczok hosts Ukraine Calling, a weekly roundup of what’s been happening in Ukraine. She is also Associate Professor of History and Political Science at the University of Western Ontario, and CERES Fellow at the University of Toronto, Canada.