In the early hours of Wednesday, July 20, a car bomb in Kyiv took the life of a long-time NED friend, Pavel Sheremet. A journalist with the Kyiv-based Radio Vesti and the prominent Ukrainian news website Ukrayinska Pravda, Pavel was also the founder and editor of Belarusian Partisan, a popular independent news website critical of the Belarusian authorities. Most importantly, he was a fervent defender of democracy and the rule of law. While the motive and perpetrators of the murder remain unknown, the tragedy of the loss and Pavel’s impact on independent journalists and pro-democracy activists in the region cannot be overstated.
Born in 1971 in Minsk, Pavel began his journalistic career on Belarusian television. His first clash with authoritarianism came when Pavel’s television program was cancelled in an attempt to silence dissent ahead of the country’s 1995 referendum that was designed to consolidate Lukashenko’s powers. In subsequent years, Pavel was imprisoned, beaten, harassed, stripped of his accreditation and citizenship for his independent journalism and critical stance. In 2000, his cameraman Dmitry Zavadsky disappeared on his way to pick up Pavel at Minsk’s international airport. Although his body was never found, Dmitry was presumably murdered by individuals close to the Lukashenko regime in retaliation for his work. As a result, Pavel became dedicated to uncovering the truth about this and other politically motivated disappearances in Belarus (which, in addition to Dmitry, included four high-profile opposition figures). In 2005, Pavel established the independent news website Belarusian Partisan, which became a leading source of information for Belarusians on developments inside the country and worldwide. For his struggle, Pavel was awarded the Best TV Journalist prize by the Belarusian PEN Center (1995), the Committee to Protect Journalists’ International Press Freedom Award (1998), and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Prize for Journalism and Democracy (2002).
But his larger-than-life personality, professional reputation and contributions to public debate reverberated beyond the borders of Belarus and Ukraine. He was friends and allies with major figures in the Russian opposition circles, including opposition politician Mikhail Kasyanov, anti-corruption crusader Alexey Navalny and the slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. Through the years, he often warned his Russian colleagues that Russia was moving worrisomely close to the Belarusian authoritarian model. Unfortunately, Pavel’s predictions have been proven accurate.
Although he continued to live in Moscow and work for Russia’s Channel One, Pavel was a vocal critic of Vladimir Putin and his increasingly authoritarian rule. In 2014, refusing to compromise his ethics and contribute to the Russian propaganda machine, Pavel resigned from Channel One. Infected by the energy of Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity, he moved to Kyiv to work as an independent journalist and help build a new Ukraine. Recently, Pavel told a mutual friend that he had found his new home in Kyiv and expressed great enthusiasm for the future. While the future will not be the same without him, we should do our best to honor and carry on his legacy.
Olga Tarasov is a Program Officer at National Endowment for Democracy.