Article by: Alya Shandra
A leaked wiretap of the Belarusian KGB reveals President Lukashenka sought the assassination of opposition journalist Pavel Sheremet, who was killed in Kyiv in 2016.
Surprisingly, Ukrainian law enforcers had ignored this logical version. Instead, they are incriminating three Ukrainian military volunteers, despite no clear motive for the crime.
Since Pavel Sheremet was murdered in July 2016 in Kyiv, Ukrainian investigators had a difficult time figuring out the motive. Nothing seemed to fit: the Belarusian-Ukrainian journalist hadn’t authored any hard-hitting investigation against the Ukrainian authorities, nor had he done anything to trigger revenge.
Their absense of realistic explanations for Sheremet’s murder was underscored when three persons were charged with carrying out the murder and jailed despite the absence of clear proof. Ukrainian investigators alleged, absurdly, that they killed Sheremet to “cultivate the greatness of the Aryan race” and “find a sacral victim.”
None of these versions clicked. That has now changed: on 4 January, the EUobserver media and the Belarusian opposition organization “Belarusian People’s Tribunal” published wiretaps of Lukashenka’s former spy-chief Vadim Zaitsev, who headed the Belarusian KGB during 2008-2012.
The bugged recordings were shared with EUobserver by Igor Makar, a former special-forces officer who used to serve in the Almaz Special Anti-Terrorism Unit, a Belarus interior ministry swat team, but who now lives in hiding in the EU and is a Belarusian opposition activist.
On the 24-minute audio recording, a man with a voice similar to Zaitsev’s is heard discussing ways to conduct political assassinations of Lukashenka’s opponents. An English-language transcript of the recording is available here.
EUobserver claims the recording was made on April 2012 during a meeting of the Belarusian KGB, where Zaitsev briefed two unnamed employees from KGB’s Alpha Group’s Seventh Department, a clandestine task-force, which Zaitsev had created to target the Belarusian regime’s political enemies.
Among the people Belarusian dictator Lukashenka wanted to have killed were:
•Oleg Alkaev, the former head of the Minsk pre-trial detention center who exposed abductions and possible killings of Belarusian opposition politicians. Alkaev was the
head of the “execution group” that carried out death sentences. He was granted the status of a political refugee in Germany in 2002;
•Vladimir Borodach, a retired special forces colonel living in Germany. In 2012, he initiated the creation of a Belarusian government in exile;
•Vyacheslav Dudkin, a former employee of the “anti-corruption” department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Belarus, who exposed the abuses of the KGB officers. He also lives in Germany.
Lukashenka had dedicated $1.5m in an off-the-books account for operations of this type and wanted to see “results,” according to the bugged meeting.
A fourth name was casually mentioned in the conversation: that of Pavel Sheremet, who was exiled in Russia since 1997 after being deported from Belarus. Apparently, Lukashenka wanted him killed, too: “We should be working Sheremet, who is a massive pain in the arse. We’ll plant [a bomb] and so on and this fucking rat will be taken down in fucking pieces, legs in one direction, arms in the other direction. If everything [looks like] natural causes, it won’t get into people’s minds the same way. Especially considering that planting [a bomb] is not a problem at all.”
Based on an internal KGB surveillance report shared with EUobserver by Makar, the media reported that Belarus had put Sheremet under observation in Moscow, where he lived after being driven out of Belarus.
Why Makar waited eight years
Speaking with Ukraine’s public broadcaster Suspilne, Makar said that he received the recordings in 2012 from his anonymous source in the State Security Committee of the Republic of Belarus, who is now also in the EU.
“The man, a former KGB officer who has a direct relationship with the people talking to Zaitsev, is ready to testify in the European Court of Justice and the Prosecutor General’s Office of Ukraine,” Makar said, adding that the recording underwent a phonoscopic examination confirming its authenticity.
Makar recognized the name of his friend Oleg Alkaev in the recording and realized he needed to save his life.
The former special forces officer shared the records with the US intelligence services. Thanks to this, Makar said, his life was saved, as well as those of Borodach and Dudkin. Lukashenka also had plans to kill Russian political scientist Andrei Suzdaltsev, who is also alive.
The only one killed was Pavel Sheremet.
Makar explained that he did not publish the tapes earlier because only now was the political situation in Belarus conducive to these tapes being heard.
“I published this recording now because this year, after the presidential election in Belarus, something unimaginable happened in my home country. I see how the people rebelled against this dictatorial regime. All these beatings, atrocities against the Belarusian people. I realized that right now my support is more important than ever. That’s why I published it. And I am probably ready to sacrifice my life so that all this stops for Belarus, the dictatorial regime, and so that Belarus becomes free. If I had tried to publish it earlier, in 2012, the political situation would have been completely different. I would 100% sacrifice my life, and we would not hear this recording today. We would not open our eyes to all these planned and committed crimes, including the murder of Pavel Sheremet. If I had published these data in 2016, when Pavel Sheremet was blown up, I think I might have helped to understand the crime, but today I would not have helped my Belarusian people cope with this dictatorial regime that now exists in our country.”
Makar said that he gave these recordings to the Ukrainian law enforcement in December 2020, reached an agreement to cooperate with them, and is ready to testify at the Prosecutor General’s Office of Ukraine.
Ukraine’s National Police confirmed that they received the recordings and received permission to conduct investigative actions in “one of the European countries.”
A logical Belarusian trace
The KGB tapes offer a logical explanation for the murder.
In Belarus, Sheremet, who in 1995 received the Ales Adamovich prize for best TV journalist, became known as an enemy of Lukashenka’s regime.
After a 1997 TV report about smuggling on the Belarusian-Lithuanian border, Sheremet was arrested, and after spending a little over two months in prison, moved to Moscow. There, he was in contact with Putin’s nemesis Boris Nemtsov (assassinated in 2015), created documentaries, and worked for the Russian TV channel ORT, which he left after writing an article stating “Russia is moving down Belarus’ path” amid election irregularities.
In his Russian period, Sheremet launched the opposition website “Belarusian partisan,” and in 2010, he was stripped of Belarusian citizenship.
The next year, he moved to Kyiv. In his Ukrainian period, Pavel Sheremet worked with the Ukrainian media Ukrayinska Pravda, where he became its executive director and common-law husband of its editor-in-chief Olena Prytula. He held master classes on journalism techniques and hosted radio programs. In his last articles, he wrote about the war in Donbas, the criminal conduct of the Ukrainian police, and the road policies of Lukashenka. He spoke about the need to de-oligarchize Ukraine.
But he did not have any clearly defined enemies in Ukraine.
Defense of the accused slams Ukrainian investigation
Sheremet’s lack of obvious enemies in Ukraine makes the Ukrainian prosecutors’ dismissal of the Belarusian version all the stranger.
According to the defense team of one of the accused, Andriy Antonenko, published by the legal firm Sens-Ukrayina, the “Belarusian trace” should have had the highest priority for the Ukrainian investigators, taking into account the political position of Pavel Sheremet, “especially considering that the murder took place on July 20 – the day of Alexander Lukashenko’s first inauguration in 1994 – the date he celebrates unofficially every year.”
However, it was not investigated or considered, the defense claims. In public speeches of Ukrainian officials regarding the murder, all attention was paid to alleged faults of the three accused.
“Russia, [alleged] PTSD, extremism, and schizophrenia of the performers were spoken about, but there was no mention of Belarus.”
The defense believes the information on the tapes, if it is confirmed, completely “destroys the insane version of the prosecution’s side” — that unknown individuals employed well-known Ukrainian patriotic volunteers to carry out such an assassination for the purpose of “creating an extremely resonant event in Ukrainian society with the aim of further provoking numerous protests.”
This version contradicts the one published in the EUobserver, Antonenko’s lawyers stated, adding that “there are not even remote hints in the case of the accused’s connection with any special services, including foreign ones,” and suggesting that Ukrainian law enforcers deliberately sabotaged the investigation:
“This inevitably suggests that if the involvement of the Belarusian secret services in this murder is confirmed, the question arises whether the leaders of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the National Police deliberately covered up both the organizers and executors, pointing to knowingly uninvolved persons and false versions of the motive.”
After the publication of the tapes, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Internal Affairs Artem Shevchenko has told that the Belarusian tapes “confirm the main version of the investigation” — that the accused were not acting independently but on behalf of an unidentified group of persons.
“This is unlikely to directly affect the trial [in the cases of Antonenko, Kuzmenko, and Dugar – Ed], because the accused are accused of participating in the execution of this crime.”
The Ukrainian investigation was accused of inaction as journalists started their own parallel investigation. The profile of this murder grew and, apparently, it became a priority for newly-minted President Zelenskyy to uncover by all means the crime that was not solved under his predecessor Petro Poroshenko.
Suspicions of a deal between Zelenskyy and Interior Minister Avakov grew when the President spoke at a press conference in December 2019, where the three suspects in the case were essentially declared guilty in violation of the presumption of innocence.
These suspicions grew as proof of guilt of the suspects turned out to be sorely lacking and prosecutors were accused of doctoring evidence amid a lack of any logical motives for the suspects to carry out the murder.
Immediately after the assassination, Ukrainian officials asserted that the crime was designed to destabilize Ukraine, which indirectly implies Moscow’s hand was involved. But no such destabilization happened. Sheremet’s death was mourned, but it is unclear how exactly it should have been a destabilizing factor.
At the arrest of the three suspects, police presented an expressly exotic version: that they were fascinated by “ultranationalist ideas, cultivating the greatness of the Aryan race,” and claimed that by committing the murder they wanted to draw attention to their views – a supposition that appears to hold little, if any, water.
After prosecutors investigating the case were changed, these sensational allegations were scrapped. Now, police claim the three suspects acted on behalf of unknown organizers of the assassination who aimed to create “an extremely resonant event with the aim of provoking further numerous protests.”
It remains unknown how the mysterious death of one person could achieve that goal. The murder was indeed frustrating, but the only protests that followed come from a growing movement to support the suspects, one of whom has spent over a year in prison.
In Ukraine, they are increasingly viewed as modern Ukrainian political prisoners.