Belarusian Partisan with Love: In Memory of Pavel Sheremet

Photograph: Dmytro Larin/AFP/Getty Images

On 20 July 2016 at 7:45 am a bomb went off in a car in Kiev. The explosion killed Pavel Sheremet, a prominent Belarusian journalist working in Ukraine.

Pavel was 44 years old and was killed in a car of his partner Olena Prytula. Ms Prytula owns Ukrayinska Pravda, an influential online newspaper in Ukraine, one of the media outlets where Mr Sheremet worked.

The Ukraine President, Petro Poroshenko, called the journalist’s death “a terrible tragedy”, and ordered a thorough investigation. Mr Sheremet was driving his partner’s car on his way to work at the time of the tragedy. Security has been dispatched to protect Ms Prytula.

Mr Sheremet is not the first partner and colleague whom Ms Prytula has tragically lost. Georgiy Gongadze, an investigative journalist and founder of the Ukrayinska Pravda, was murdered 16 years ago. His body was found decapitated in the forest outside of Kiev. Mr Sheremet’s murder is yet another name on the list of a whole generation of journalists in the former USSR who have lost their lives due to their work.

Belarusian, Russian, and Ukrainian periods

Mr Sheremet began his career as a television journalist in his native Minsk. He came to journalism from banking, starting out in 1992 by consulting Belarusian television on economic matters. In 1996 he became the editor-in-chief of Belarusskaya Delovaya Gazeta, a major Belarusian business newspaper.

In 1997 Belarusian authorities arrested him and sentenced him to two years for allegedly crossing the Belarus-Lithuania border. However, he served only three months in Belarusian prison thanks to the intervention of former Russian President Yeltsin.

Sheremet produced a documentary together with his colleague Dzmitry Zavadski (who later went missing) about the ease of crossing the Belarusian-Lithuanian border. The documentary enraged the Belarusian authorities, and shortly after Sheremet chose to leave Belarus under pressure and went to work in Moscow.

After a few years of working for a major Russian TV channel in Moscow, Mr Sheremet yet again found himself in opposition to the government. He continued to work in journalism as long as he could. He befriended prominent opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who was also murdered in Moscow last year.

Pavel Sheremet helped Boris Nemtsov write his autobiography and produced a documentary about him. He also paid his last tribute and led Nemtsov’s memorial service in Moscow.

In 2010 Mr Sheremet was stripped of his Belarusian citizenship, which he found out from an official letter sent through the Belarusian Embassy in Moscow. He had to move again, this time to Ukraine, having now been denied the right to freely practise his profession in two countries.

There he was once again successful, participating actively in Ukraine’s social and political life and opening a new journalism school. His colleagues remember him as a highly professional and very personable man. “Ukraine has changed and will continue to change,” Pavel Sheremet wrote in one of his last Facebook posts.

Legacy in Belarus and beyond

Even in exile from Belarus Pavel Sheremet remained active and wrote about events in Belarus. He founded and worked for Belarusian Partisan, an oppositional online newspaper. He liked to call people on the phone and introduce himself by saying: “Hello, this is Pavel Sheremet, Belarusian partisan. I’ve got a question.”

When Mr Sheremet chose to come back to Belarus in 2006 for the opposition march during the presidential election in Belarus, he was once again badly beaten and arrested. Nevertheless, he always stayed true to his pro-European ideas and supported democratic forces in Belarus.

In his own words, given to Radio Liberty in March 2016: “I may not be objective, since I grew stiff in my opinion about Lukashenka, but I think that his fear to lose the grip on power in Belarus is so strong, that he will not let even ten opposition representatives into the Parliament.”

Mr Sheremet's reporting earned him the International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in 1998. When authorities in Belarus denied permission for Mr Sheremet to travel to New York for the awards ceremony, the Committee to Protect Journalists held a special award ceremony for him in Minsk.

In 2002, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) awarded Mr Sheremet its Prize for Journalism and Democracy in recognition of his human rights reporting in the Balkans and Afghanistan.

Emotional tributes and official silence

Mr Sheremet’s death prompted an immediate shock and triggered an outpouring of grief from his colleagues in Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia. Ms Sviatlana Kalinkina, managing editor of Narodnaja Volya, an oppositional newspaper, who co-authored a book about Lukashanka with Sheremet, said:

He was the first to have an analytical programme on Belarusian television. "Prospekt" was critical of the authorities; he showed us this was possible and even necessary. This is such a tragedy. Thank you, Pasha, for being with us. And forgive us.

Michael McFaul, a former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, called Sheremet “one of the best” journalists and said: “Pavel was such a decent man. So sad." Global rights watchdogs Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) called Sheremet's killing a "reprehensible act that has sent a shockwave for freedom of expression in Ukraine."

Svetlana Aleksievich, the Belarusian Nobel Prize Winner, reports to BBC:

About six months ago I visited Ukraine, and we had a meeting with Pavel. And I would like his wife, Ms. Olena Prytula, a person he really loved, to know about this conversation. When he found out I was writing a book about love, he said “You know, I travelled to Ukraine for love. And big love, trust me!

This contrasts sharply with the tacit reactions from the official government news outlets in Belarus. Some sources, including Belarusian state television where he started his career as a journalist in 1990s, chose to remain silent. Others either omitted that Pavel Sheremet had anything to do with Belarus, or reminded its readers about Sheremet’s ‘criminal’ past.

Pavel Sheremet’s body will be returned to Minsk, according to his mother. He is survived by his mother who continues to live in Belarus. On behalf of Belarus Digest we would like to extend our deepest condolences to Mr Sheremet’s family and friends.

Galina is an independent consultant for UN in gender equality and domestic violence prevention, currently works at Emerge in Boston, MA, a Batterer Intervention Programme.

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