Killing of journalist Pavel Sheremet in Kyiv: in-depth commentary

Ukraine Calling discusses the assassination of Pavel Sheremet with journalist Andriy Kulykov, Kennan Institute in Kyiv Director Kateryna Smahliy, and publisher/entrepreneur Paul Niland

Show hosts

Marta Dyczok


Пол Ніленд,

Катерина Смаглій,

Andriy Kulykov

Killing of journalist Pavel Sheremet in Kyiv: in-depth commentary
Killing of journalist Pavel Sheremet in Kyiv: in-depth commentary

Journalist Pavel Sheremet was killed by a car bomb in the center of Kyiv as he was driving to work on Wednesday (July 20, 2016) morning. At 7:45, he was on the corner of Khmel’nyt’s’kyi and Franko streets. That’s just blocks from Ukraine’s Secret Service building. The bomb was triggered remotely. Street cameras captured the explosion on video.

Kateryna Smagliy, Paul Niland, Andriy Kulykov and Marta Dyczok Hromadske Radio

Ukraine’s National Police Chief Khatia Dekanoidze was on the scene almost immediately. She said she that 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.

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. We have in studio with us today three people to look at what happened, why it happened, and what it means. Andriy Kulykov is a journalist, he is one of the founders of Hromadske Radio, he is the chairman of Hromadske Radio and knew Pavlo Sheremet personally. Kateryna Smagliy is the director of the Kennan Institute here in the Kyiv office. Paul Niland is a journalist, an entrepreneur, a publisher, and a commentator. Thank you very much for coming into to talk about this rather difficult subject. 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.

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 –

Dyczok: – I don’t think any journalist apart from very few but –

Kulykov: 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 –

Dyczok: – is demonstrative.

Kulykov: Yeah, it means to show: don’t go here, they do not read journalists properly; Ukraine is dangerous for decent people, basically.

Dyczok: 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?

Smagliy: 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 94, 95, and then just three months before Georgiy disappeared in June 2000, and clearly our northern neighbors 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 destabilization in Ukraine, some internal destabilization, 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 –

Dyczok: – sorry to interrupt, just a reminder listeners, Pavlo Sheremet, thank you for correction, was a journalist working for Ukrayinska Pravda, which is that publication which was owned by Olena Prytula, again Serhiy Leshchenko, who you’ve just referred to, also came from that publication.

Smagliy: Yes, and I fully agree with Andriy Kulykov, who had used this term already, Ukraine is a “failed state” and we could observe that –

Dyczok: – Sorry Ukraine is a failed state?

Kulykov: – I implicated that the murder –

Smagliy: – 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.

Dyczok: But there’s a lot of dissatisfaction within this country, and what you’ve referred to is this “there hasn’t been enough changed” that’s coming also from within the country and that leads me to what I wanted to ask Paul about. You this week published a very interesting piece in the Kyiv Post where you speculate what Ukraine would have been like had the Euromaidan revolution failed and Yanukovych is still in power, this is Ukraine, so I’m leaving Ukraine. You’re really responding to that narrative that nothing has changed and everything is bad, everything is getting worse. In view of what just happened, would you change your view on the fact that things have actually changed in this country?

Niland: No, I’m not changing my view on that. But I’ll come back to some of the things that I said then, but to carry on for just a moment talking about the motive behind Pavel. One of the most important things I’ve seen since the awful event is straight away the authorities have said they want to involve outside investigative authorities, the FBI and Europol, and I think for me that’s the most important indication that this is not a murder that is going to be somehow covered up by the vested interests that exist in Ukraine. The fact that they’re willing to open up, the fact that they’re willing to say consider it the same way as MH17 as well, the fact that the Ukrainian authorities are going to say look you deal with it, right, because they know they have little credibility themselves and they have little credibility for many reasons including what happened to Gongadze and so on. But another point I wanted to come back to is something that you said Andriy, you said that Pavel felt here Ukrainian and I want you to know, and I want the people listening to the show as well, that that’s not just because there was some kind of Slavic bond there, that he’s Belorussian and then a Russian citizen and so it’s all these slavs together. I know many people, European people, many Scandinavian people, people who’ve been here for a long time, who also feel very much like they’ve bonded here and they’re a part now of this Ukrainian project going forward. I’m a part of that and I’ve lived here for a very long time, and I wrote the piece that you referred to Marta because I was standing on a Saturday afternoon and I was challenged to do so by a friend. He said “you write some serious stuff, why don’t you have a laugh, why don’t you do something that will make people stand up and pay attention, and use that as the base.” What if the revolution had failed? Where would we be today? The kind of repressions we would be suffering today, the fact that we would still have, I joked about Serhiy Kurchenko’s 30th birthday, and you know for a man who was worth 7.4 billion according to his own Forbes magazine, it’s like they’re gloating at us, right? Kurchenko was this guy who came from nowhere as a 27 year old, within the space of twelve months he had amassed a fortune of 2.4 billion dollars, and you know, yes there’s a lot of people who are of the opinion Ukraine hasn’t changed, nothing has changed. It’s wrong, there are lots of people who are of the opinion as you just said, Katya, that the reforms have been too slow, that ‘s absolutely right, there does need to be more, but if we hadn’t succeeded on Maidan, things would be very, very different here –

Kulykov: – You’ve gone completely native.

Niland: – Yes – 

Kulykov: – To say, if we hadn’t succeeded –

Niland: Yeah, but that’s what I say, that’s how I feel, and many of my friends say the same. I remember a comment from a Danish friend of mine on Facebook saying, you know, we are all a part of this. And yeah, I say we, I was at the site of Pavel Sheremet’s murder and I know you were there putting flowers down as well.

Dyczok: And Andriy was there, I don’t know Katya if you had a chance to visit.

Niland: I put flowers down and then a TV camera came over and was asking me what I thought and I said, “как это может быть в наш красивый киев?” or “how can it be in our beautiful kiev?” So yes, I say we, I say ours, I’m Ukrainian.

Kulukov: I still think that by pointing so quickly and without anything in doubt to Russia, our authorities tried to sort of distract people’s attention from the possibility that there still may be a Ukrainian part in this. And we speak about, when we mention the murder of Georgiy Gongadze, and we speak of Pavel Sheremet’s death do we know, do we remember, how many journalists were killed in Ukraine over twenty five years? Sixty five, I was told today at the First National TV Channel. Sixty-five, and I think that it would be absurd to say that all of them or even most of them died because of outside interference.

Niland: – It would be absurd – 

Kulykov: – Before we cross the T’s and dot the I’s, or before the law enforcement bodies pronounce the verdict, I think we should we could keep our minds open, as they should, to all the theories. And another thing that really troubles me, while many people say that this is a good sign, is what Khatia Dekanoidze, the chief of the national police, said. She said that the investigation of this should be a matter of honor for us, why?

Dyczok: It should be a matter of honor for every killing –

Kulykov: – Yes –

Dyczok: 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.

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 behavior, 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.

Smagliy: 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 –

Dyczok: – And there’s no accountability, or not enough accountability –

Smagliy: 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 –

Dyczok: – Like what?

Smagliy: 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 radicalization? 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?

Dyczok: Andriy, you wanted to jump in here.

Kulykov: 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.

Dyczok: Well, I think we all hope that journalists contribute to that. There are many elements to an investigation. Paul, you had something you wanted to comment on.

Niland: We’re looking at all cases and historical cases, and the opportunities in the years since the Gongadze killing for people to bury evidence, for people to cover up what their roles are, for witnesses to be put out of commission. It’s more difficult, obviously, to come up with some answer there, but it’s essential for such a high profile case as Gongadze. But far more recently than that, I wrote an article at the beginning of this year and it appeared in the days in the wake of the resignation of the former economy minister. Shortly after Aivaras resigned, I think it was two days later, all of a sudden there was a breakthrough in the Euromaidan killings and there was a picture there of President Poroshenko sitting there with the then Prosecutor General Shokin and the head of the SBU and they said “we found the weapons.” Then the SBU later on that day released photographs of the weapons.

Kulykov: You should explain to listeners what the SBU is, it’s not as well known as the FSB.

Niland: Sorry, The Ukrainian Internal Security Services, thanks for pointing that out. So the Ukrainian Security Forces released these photographs of these weapons that they’d found, and when I saw these photographs, I rarely lose my temper, but I went mad because the photographs clearly showed leaves on the trees. Now Aivaras resigned in January, right?

Dyczok: So they had the evidence?

Niland: They had the evidence back in the summer, and they’d clearly sat on it, waiting for a politically convenient moment for when they needed to change the subject all of a sudden. So two days after what was, you know, a very high profile resignation, and it wasn’t just the resignation it was the reasons that Aivaras gave for his resignation in his resignation speech.

Dyczok: And remind our listeners what were the reasons for his resignation?

Niland: The reason why Aivaras resigned is because he claimed, there’s still an investigation going on here, I know he spoke to the national anti-corruption bureau about his allegations, that a certain Mr. Kononenko, a member of Parliament and a person quite close to President Poroshenko, put pressure on him to appoint certain people to key positions in state-owned enterprises. And I believe it was a complete success that the reformers of the previous government, as they were leaving one of the last things they managed to push through was to get several employees, foreign specialists, to come in to head up these certain state-owned enterprises. And it was a demonstration of no, you actually can’t get away with that anymore, but for me the investigation into what happened in the shootings on the 20th of February of 2014, when this video footage, there is video footage from behind the police lines, and we can see faces, we can see people who are not wearing masks, and the snipers were wearing masks, but a sniper, when they put on their gear and take their weapon, its a very specialized weapon and they’re very individualized weapons, we can see faces of people who were behind police lines. I do not believe, I do not believe, that we cannot identify those people. There’s no record of who was around the presidential administration on Bankova Street on 20th of February? That’s just wrong. So yes, there are many investigations, and maybe the historical ones we stand less of a chance of coming up with justice in those cases. But Maidan can’t be messed with. A hundred people gave their lives and again, what if Yanukovych hadn’t gone? The opening of that article that I wrote there said that the hundred people that gave their lives died in vain, and the last insult to their memory was when Institutskaya Street was reopened for traffic and the memorials to them were swept away. So I was writing that, but actually what was talking about when I wrote that the memorials were being swept away were the memorials to Boris Nemtsov, up in Moscow. There were a few parallels with the situation with our people to the north. But the Maidan investigation has stalled and it was deliberately manipulated, and that’s unacceptable.

Dyczok: You mentioned Nemtsov, who was a friend of Pavel Sheremet. Perhaps that’s a note.

Kulykov: You know, when I was listening to Paul, I thought, we started with a killing of just one person. And there are so many things that may be connected to it. I think that both Kateryna and Paul are very right in pointing out the necessity of the involvement and you said it, how journalists can speed up or help the investigation. Many, many people should be involved in different ways. Not messing the investigation, but providing whatever kind of evidence they can. And on the day of the murder, there was a small rally to commemorate Pavel Sheremet on the Maidan. I think that two hundred who took part is absolutely insufficient. Well there are reasons, of course, many people still did not know. They worked, they were not paying attention to even the hotest and the most tragic news, but this conversation will be put online on the day when in the center, in downtown Kyiv there will be another ceremony for Pavel Sheremet. And I strongly believe that many, many more people will come to this. Not a happy note, but it does provide –

Foma (Serhiy Fomenko) Marta Dyczok

Dyczok: Optimism. This is a horrific killing, and uncovering who did it and why it happened and the consequences is a story we will continue to follow. Thank you very much for your comments, your insight, and I hope to see you all again on Ukraine Calling. 

Those of you who have been listening to Ukraine Calling, probably noticed something new at the beginning of the show today. We now have a jingle.

When I started putting the show together in early July, I was looking for some signature music to start the show with every week. So I reached out to one of my favourite Ukrainian musicians, Serhiy Fomenko, also known as FOMA, of the Mandry group, and asked if he had something for me. FOMA replied yes, sure, I’ll send you a few tracks. He’s touring in the US so it took a while for this to come together. The song I selected is called, “Znovu den’ perekhodyt’ u nich,” which means The day is once again turning into night.

My wonderful sound engineer, Andriy Izdryk, has captured the fragment that you’ll hear every week. But I thought you might like to hear the entire song, written by FOMA back in 2007. Like all good music, it remains fresh.

Ukraine’s Parliament has started its summer recess, and the IMF has postponed discussing the Ukraine loan until August. But we’ll be watching to see how the investigation into journalist Pavel Sheremet’s killing unfolds. Tune in next weekend for a new episode of Ukraine Calling with Marta Dyczok in Kyiv.