Belarusian Partisan with Love: In Memory of Pavel Sheremet
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.
Belarusian Railway: in Transit from the Soviet Past
A private sleeping train compartment in Belarus costs around $6 for an eight hour trip. This is around 70 times cheaper than travelling with a Western equivalent such as the American Amtrak.
Contributing around 2.2% to yearly Belarusian GDP, Belarusian Railway is a large governmental enterprise employing 79,000 people and providing 5,500 km of railway connections.
In 2013 Belarusian Railway started to modernise. It purchased Swiss Stadler trains and introduced a new service – City Lines. These connections function similarly to short-distance fast commuter trains and connect agglomerations near to Minsk. In 2015 they transported 3,5m people.
Today, despite increasing efforts to modernise, Belarusian Railway is not yet living up to its potential. The train network in Belarus is well-developed, passenger trains are never late, and service is cheap.
However, trains tend to be slow, schedules are badly thought out, and the customer service has room for improvement. Breaking the one-enterprise monopoly might help shake-up the Belarusian Railway and boost its economic standing.
The largest operator
Belarusian Railway was established in 1862 as a part of the Warsaw-St. Petersburg route.
Because of the country’s strategic position between Russia and the rest of Europe, Belarusian Railway has been a success since its foundation, with freight and passenger transportation thriving. Today, it takes around eight hours to travel in a sleeping car to Warsaw or Moscow, around the same to Kiev. Fast business class trains can reach Vilnius in two hours and other regional cities in Belarus within three hours.
Belarusian Railway is the largest operator of freight and passenger trains in the country. It accounts for up to 75% of all freight transportation, and carries around 40% of all public transportation passengers in Belarus.
For several years, Belarusian Railway has retained its position in the top-20 government based enterprises that generate significant profit. In 2015 it was the 13th most profitable, earning around $11,5m. At the same time, due to growing tensions between Russia and the European Union, Belarusian Railway recently witnessed a significant drop in freight transportation and faces severe economic challenges in the face of an approaching market economy.
To a large extent, Belarusian Railway remains a legacy of the Soviet Railways and to this day functions according to the pattern set during Soviet times. It praises its social responsibility in terms of passenger traffic, keeps prices low and functions similarly to large governmental-owned enterprises that employ large numbers of people with perhaps excessive social benefits.
Similar enterprises in Lithuania and Latvia modernised a while back: they raised prices for both passenger and freight transportation, closed down unprofitable routes and function more or less as self-sustainable businesses. Other countries, such as Poland, built upon their railway heritage and significantly developed some of their passenger routes, introducing one of the fastest trains in Europe in the Gdansk tri-state area.
Not only trains
Belarusian Railway is a mega-entity that includes much more than just train transportation. On 1 January 2016, Belarusian Railway consisted of 29 unitary enterprises, seven separate structural branches and three subsidiaries abroad.
The enterprise operates several electro-mechanical factories and related production in Homel, Barysau, Baranavichy and Brest. It owns large depots of train cars construction in Minsk and Homel. Belarusian Railway also controls reinforced concrete production plants in Asipovichy, Brest and Baranavichy. In addition, the industrial giant owns a franchise of more than 150 "DarOrs" grocery shops, a children's railway network in Minsk, and an engineering project institute.
These enterprises make Belarusian Railway truly a business giant, incomparable in its scope and diversity with any other business in Belarus. Some branches have broke off, but the responsibility is nevertheless overwhelming for one agency. Accordingly, the ability to diversify is limited, efficiency is hard to measure, and personal responsibility for the company dissipates into an ever growing bureaucracy.
Divide and Conquer
Structural division according to the pattern set by the European Union regulations can become a part of the solution. For example, an analogue of Belarusian Railway in Poland, PKP Group, inherited the same structural problems as those facing railway enterprises in Belarus. However, the original PKP structure was transformed in 2001 and divided into separate companies.
While a parent company, Polskie Koleje Państwowe, still exists, intercity transport is now operated separately from transport within the Tri-city area of Gdansk, which is also different from local connection trains. Private investors now own the freight transportation, while IT services, rail management, energy services, and communications belong to separate businesses.
Such division would benefit the management of the railway system, since all these aspects are managed by one large body. Moreover, while some branches of the Belarusian Railway, such as freight transportation, are highly profitable, others, such as passenger transportation, function solely on subsidies. Separation of such branches would contribute to a more stable financial situation, more responsive management and a flexible system of transportation that would be ready to adjust to market needs.
Moreover, while some parts of Belarusian Railway function as subsidiary enterprises, in its current state such divisions often lead to conflict of interests. Even with the current system of structural division, nepotistic practices occur, and allocations for projects are based on opportunities for the largest appropriation of resources.
Better Service as the Key
Well executed privatisation could improve the financial stability of the enterprise as well as improve the client's experience.
If management were more interested, it would be possible to conduct surveys in order to determine the traffic volume on certain routes. Accordingly, passenger traffic could be optimised and the low-volume routes either suspended or made seasonal. It would be beneficial to conduct customer surveys and forecasts, leading to a potential traffic development strategy based on interest in certain routes.
While the freight transportation division of Belarusian Railway is considered profitable, this is not always the case. Currently, local freight transportation costs in Belarus are artificially lowered for local retailers. Privatisation processes would be able to contribute to a more healthy financial solution. Policy for small-scale private transportation of goods should become more simple in order to compete with the more widespread use of lorry transport.
Lastly, private management would avoid large scale show-off projects that are neither financially profitable nor rational. Some such show-off projects of Belarusian Railway included City Lines, which promised only 15-minutes of wait time, and the airport train, which has to change locomotives as well as direction on its way to the airport.
Need to modernise
In this context, it is evident that Belarusian Railway has to modernise. It needs to become more competitive in the face of other types of traffic and economic actors. The railway system must be made more flexible and integrated into the current transportation systems in Belarusian cities.
The service, in turn, must be brought up to date with faster, better-equipped trains, a developed loyalty system, and more IT integration. However, in order to bring about these changes, The Belarusian Railway must break up the one-man monopoly, acquire a more flexible management system, and become more responsive to the needs of the economy and its clients.