Tuesday

26th Jan 2021

Investigation

Ukraine's journalist murder case goes international

  • Demonstrators in Kiev at a Pavel Sheremet memorial rally in 2017 (Photo: kyivpost.com)

Ukrainian police have visited an undisclosed EU state to collect fresh evidence on a potential Belarusian link to the murder of one of eastern Europe's best-known journalists, Pavel Sheremet, four years ago.

The Ukrainian delegation was to interview Igor Makar, a 37-year old Belarusian ex-special forces officer, who recently came forward with a bugged recording of Belarus' former spy-chief discussing Sheremet's assassination, which was published by this website.

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  • Bomb exploded in Kiev city-centre on a Wednesday morning (Photo: kyivpost.com)

"I will do everything to prove the involvement of the Belarusian special services [the KGB], and in particular [Belarus president Alexander] Lukashenko himself, in the death of Pavel Sheremet," Makar, who lives in hiding in the EU, told EUobserver ahead of his Ukraine deposition.

"I also hope that Oleg Alkaev and Andrei Suzdaltsev will apply to the competent authorities [to testify]," Makar added.

Alkaev is a Belarusian émigré in Germany who was co-writing a book with Sheremet about four Lukashenko political murders in 1999, when Sheremet was killed in Kiev in 2016.

Alkaev is currently consulting a lawyer about testifying, EUobserver understands.

But he previously said he believed the Belarusian KGB was involved in the murder.

"Unfortunately, Sheremet was not so cautious and that's the price he paid," Alkaev earlier told this website.

Suzdaltsev is a Russian expert on Belarus, who has worked with the Security Council of Russia, a Kremlin advisory body, and who also knew Sheremet.

The Belarusian authorities have declined to comment on the bugged KGB recording, which made headlines in Germany, France, the Netherlands, and the UK last week.

"In this case [Sheremet], which is an act of state terrorism on the part of the Lukashenko regime, any comment will be carefully considered by the international community," Makar told EUobserver.

"Lukashenko understands this and that is why there will be no statements," he said.

Sheremet was one of the best-known journalists in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine when his life was ended by a car-bomb in Kiev city-centre on the morning of Wednesday 20 July 2016.

And his assassination had a chilling effect on free press in Ukraine, which lasts to this day, according to Anna Babinets, a Ukrainian journalist who helped make a documentary film about the case, called 'Killing Pavel'.

It prompted Ukrainska Pravda, a prominent Ukrainian newspaper with which Sheremet had worked, to close its investigative department, Babinets said.

"We [Ukrainian journalists] don't feel very comfortable. It was a murder in the heart of downtown Kiev and if someone did it to create fear among journalists and a sense of danger, then, to some extent, it worked," Babinets told EUobserver.

Ukraine, last year, put on trial two women and a man, who are veterans from its war with Russia in eastern Ukraine, for the crime.

It charged them with killing Sheremet to make him a "sacrificial lamb" to provoke public interest in the Russia conflict.

But Makar's bugged KGB recording has revived speculation on whether foreign operatives, from Belarus or Russia, might have played a role.

Igor Makar (top row, centre) is a Belarusian ex-special forces officer (Photo: Igor Makar)

EU diplomacy

The Ukraine police mission and Makar's revelations have met with no reaction from EU institutions.

Back in 2016, an EU foreign service spokesperson issued "condolences" to Sheremet's family and called for "swift and transparent justice".

But the statement was "rather routine" and ought to have been more strident "if the EEAS directors had understood the significance of this murder", an EU source told EUobserver, referring to the European External Action Service (EEAS).

Meanwhile, Lukashenko's KGB, in the bugged 2012 recording, also spoke of assassinating three Belarusian émigrés in Germany, in wider EU security implications.

But there is little opportunity to discuss that.

EU ambassadors in Minsk used to talk with Belarus foreign minister Vladimir Makai before Lukashenko's rigged elections on 9 August, but all such talks ended after his crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.

Meanwhile, Alkaev told EUobserver he still took "security precautions" in Berlin.

Pavel Latouchko, a former Belarusian ambassador to Paris, has said that, when he lived in Warsaw, he was "forever being followed by a car with officers in black kagools, who really looked like [Belarusian] KGB officers".

And Natalia Kaliada, a Belarusian dissident and British citizen living in London, told this website she and her husband felt unsafe after Lukashenko published a death-threat against them a few days ago.

The bugged KGB recording from 2012 is over one-hour long and contains the voice of Lukashenko's former spy-chief, Vadim Zaitsev, according to Makar.

Ukraine police says it has the full audio file from foreign intelligence sources.

On the tape, Zaitsev says of the late Sheremet: "We'll plant [a bomb] and so on and this ... rat will be taken down".

Zaitsev also says he wants the killing to "get into people's minds" - recalling Babinets', the Ukrainian journalist's "sense of danger" in January 2021, when the case remains unsolved.

Whether Ukrainian police find evidence that Zaitsev's words turned into a KGB operation in Kiev remains to be seen.

Andrei Sannikov (r) at a European Parliament hearing in 2015 (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

Moustache, smoked

But Andrei Sannikov, a Belarusian opposition activist living in Poland, has also said it was Zaitsev's voice in the published KGB tape, helping to establish Lukashenko's homicidal 2012 EU plots as a matter of public record.

"I also verify it [Zaitsev's voice on the 2012 tape]," Sannikov told independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta last week.

"I was taken to Zaitsev when I was in the KGB jail on Christmas night 2011," Sannikov said.

"He [Zaitsev] spoke in a low voice. This was the style of party functionaries in Soviet times. They inflated their importance this way, forcing the interlocutor to strain their hearing to try to make sense of the indistinct muttering of some puffed-up turkey. Zaitsev spoke softly, with a moustache. He looked mainly at the table, occasionally casting a glance at me, which, apparently, was meant to look shrewd. He smoked," Sannikov said.

"It turns out that not only manuscripts don't burn. Oral statements are also stored somewhere in the cosmic ether, in order to become evidence at the right time," he said.

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