“If you are paranoid, that does not mean that you are not followed”: Fleeing Belarusians still in danger
Vitaly Shishov lived with his girlfriend in a rented house on the drab outskirts of the western suburbs of Kiev. It wasn’t the life he had in Belarus, but his new hut had its moments. Nature was never far away, and Shishov, a fitness fanatic, would often escape to the adjacent forest to run whenever he had the chance.
It was there that his body was found, in full racing gear, and hanging from a noose on the morning of August 3.
Two months later, Ukrainian police have yet to publicly confirm how they believe the 26-year-old activist died. A source familiar with the official investigation insists that suicide remains the most likely explanation. But few of the thousands of Belarusians who fled Alexander Lukashenko’s bloody regime for Kiev are ready to believe it.
There is history, after all.
âMy first thought upon hearing of Shishov’s death was to run,â says Andrei Tkachov, a former fitness instructor who sought refuge in the Ukrainian capital last winter. “Any Belarusian with a brain knows that hanging is one of the regime’s favorite fetishes.”
Tkachov, a field organizer during the Covid-19 pandemic, left Belarus after being caught up in the Lukashenko crackdown in August 2020. He says he was beaten by police so badly that he lost consciousness , found only in the back of a van, sandwiched between layers of other injured bodies, limbs and pools of blood.
âThey called it renovation,â he says. âThey kept saying ‘you are bastards, you are crap, and we’re here to renovate you. “
The activist stops in the middle of a sentence, distracted by the sight of a minibus pulling up beside our table. He apologizes: A black van still has the power to freeze, he says. These were the vehicles that the Lukashenko OMON riot police used on their prowling missions in Minsk.
Tkachov says the Belarusian community in Ukraine understands the risks of living in their new home. Minsk and Moscow have long arms, he says, and are aided by local criminals who are pushing them even further. Then there is the Ukrainian far right, which brings its own dynamic.
âLife is cheap in Ukraine,â says Tkachov. âI found out the other day how much it costs to kill someone in Kiev. Ten thousand dollars.”
He refuses to elaborate.
In the aftermath of Vitaly Shishov’s death, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky pledged to protect the Belarusian community in Ukraine. Overall, they tend not to believe he can do it. The obscure and unsolved 2015 murder of Belarusian-born journalist Pavlo Sheremet, blown up in central Kiev, is proof of the limits (or involvement) of the Ukrainian state, they say.
“No Belarusian activist can be sure that he is not on a list or that he is not being watched here,” said Lidzya Tarasenko, a 37-year-old doctor and community leader who arrived in Ukraine a year ago. She says she noticed many “strange people” gathering around the Belarusian diaspora.
âIf you’re paranoid, that doesn’t mean you aren’t being followed,â she says, quoting a phrase that was first used in Soviet times.
Friends say that Shishov himself complained about a tail in his last days. He noted the license plates of suspicious cars and even reported them to the police and security services. Three weeks before his death, the activist told his close friend Yury Lebedev that he suspected the Belarusian. or even Russian agents had infiltrated his organization, the Belarusian House of Ukraine (BDU).
âVitaly pulled me aside and said, Yury, watch out, these guys are here,â Lebedev said. “I mumbled and said something like ‘yes, let’s stay alert’.”
Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, 55, an MP who led the SBU, Ukraine’s security services between 2014 and 2015, says he believes foreign spy agencies are responsible for Shishov’s untimely demise. “Belarus or Russia, no one else was interested in such a demonstrative death,” he says. âAnd that sounds like a complete mess from our guys. Shishov complained about being followed, and the SBU should have taken care of it.
Nalyvaichenko rejects the common view that Ukraine’s own security agencies are themselves compromised by infiltration. The “young ideological agents” of counter-espionage have long flushed out bad apples, he insists. But he says the Belarusian KGB and the Russian FSB are heavily invested in Ukraine, aided by the common language and local criminals.
âThe bad news is that their behavior is changing and they are asserting themselves more and more,â he says. âBefore, it was more of an effect, of detonating a few grenades with minimal damage. Since the murder or Sheremet, I think we have entered a new phase where it is the result that counts.
Bellingcat, the investigative team that uncovered Skripal’s assassins, the likely poisoners of Alexey Navalny and others, claims to have evidence that at least one “Russian agent” was working in Shishov’s entourage. Christo Grozev, the media’s star detective, said the investigation had already uncovered “a certain intersection” between Shishov’s latest moves and the Russian officer. But so far, it is not enough to draw firm conclusions.
Many members of the Belarusian diaspora remain very suspicious of the BDU, the organization to which Shishov devoted his last months.
They point to the obscure involvement of far-right nationalists Rodion Batulin and Sergei Korotikh, alias âBotsmanâ. Both are from Belarus, but they are best known as the architects of the controversial Ukrainian military battalion âAzovâ. In the year before Shichov’s death, the two apparently took a keen interest in new immigrants from Belarus: helping them “solve” legal problems, finding them apartments and jobs, often in sectors Grey. Critics say it created a cycle of addiction.
The same critics report a number of suspicious deaths and suicides in the men’s immediate surroundings.
Korotkhikh, who graduated from a Belarusian KGB academy before being naturalized Ukrainian, is included in the investigations into the unsolved murder of Pavlo Sheremet. He was a close comrade of the prime suspect in the 2000 murder of Sheremet cameraman Dmitry Zavadsky in Minsk. There is, however, no conclusive evidence linking Korotkhikh to any of the crimes. Before his own death, Sheremet wrote an article saying that he thought the neo-Nazi had nothing to do with the murder of his cameraman.
In the meantime, the Ukrainian security services seem to have passed their own judgment on Batulin. In early August, just days after Shishov’s death, the mixed martial arts fighter was banned from entering the country on ânational securityâ grounds. It’s unclear if this has anything to do with the ongoing investigation into Shishov’s death, but the timing certainly looks suspicious.
In a sharp phone interview, Korotkikh recounts The independent he would not “fantasize” about Batulin’s problems or the reasons for Shishov’s death. He âbarely knewâ Shishov, he says, and rejects âstupidâ claims that he could still work for the Belarusian KGB. Korotkikh “is and always has been” a sworn opponent of Lukashenko. âOn election day, I blogged to say I think he should go,â he says. “And now I think he should be jailed, and maybe even shot.”
Korotkikh’s fact-checking blog adds gray to an already cloudy picture. Yes, Azov’s tough man criticizes Lukashenko, but he does so without much passion. And he also suggests that the only alternative, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, is a “Russian agent”, and therefore worse.
“If you’re confused, welcome to our world,” jokes Gleb Kovalev, the owner of the Belarusian diaspora bar in Kiev, which has just opened opposite the Bessarabian market. Kovalev pours himself a drink before telling me what he discovered on his own trip, extricating himself and his bar from central Minsk to Kiev, via smoke grenades, police raids, a divorce. and Poland.
âThere is more to this diaspora than it seems,â he says. If you were in Minsk you would know on which side someone was willing to carry the white and red Belarusian independence flag, but things are different in Ukraine, he adds. “Kiev is the only place in the world where I have seen people wear a swastika next to the Belarusian independence flag.”
Regulars at the bar, who are mostly on the left, say they have all become more vigilant about their safety since the Shishov episode. They don’t believe the police will protect them, they say; some have even taken their protection in hand. But for them, the threat does not come so much from Lukashenko’s agents as from the local extreme right.
“We have understood that we must divide the diaspora into three”, one of them tells me (he asks to remain anonymous). âThere are those with whom you can be friends; the ones you can’t; and those you just don’t know enough about.
âNot everyone who comes to town for the first time realizes it,â he adds, âand Shishov, I think, could have been one of them.â