VItaly Shishov lived with his girlfriend in a rented house in the dreary suburb of West Kiev. It wasn’t the life he had in Belarus, but his new cabin had its moments. Nature was never far away, and Shishov, a fitness fanatic, often took refuge in the adjacent wooded areas to jog whenever he got the chance.
His body was found there on the morning of August 3, at full speed and hanging from a noose.
Two months later, the 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 the bloody regime of Alexander Lukashenko to Kiev are ready to believe it.
After all, there is history.
“When I heard of Shishov’s death, my first thought was to run away,” says Andrei Tkachov, a former fitness trainer who sought safety in the Ukrainian capital last winter. “Any sensible Belarusian knows that hanging is one of the regime’s favorite fetishes.”
Tkachov, a grassroots organizer during the Covid-19 pandemic, left Belarus after being embroiled in Lukashenko’s August 2020 raid. He says he was beaten so hard by the police that he passed out and only ended up in the back seat of a delivery truck, sandwiched between layers of other injured bodies, limbs and pools of blood.
“They called it renovation,” he says. “They kept saying, ‘You’re bastards, you suck, and we’re here to fix you up.”
The activist stops in mid-sentence, distracted by the sight of a minivan pulling up next to our table. He apologizes: A black van still has the strength to freeze, he says. These were the vehicles that Lukashenko’s OMON riot police used on their forays into Minsk.
Tkachov says the Belarusian community in Ukraine understands the risks of living in their new homeland. Minsk and Moscow have long arms, he says, and are supported by local criminals who stretch them further. Then there is the Ukrainian extreme right, which has its own dynamic.
“Life in Ukraine is cheap,” says Tkachov. “I recently learned how much it costs to kill someone in Kiev. $ 10,000.”
He refuses to elaborate on it.
Immediately after Vitaly Shishov’s death, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made a pledge to protect the Belarusian community in Ukraine. By and large, they tend not to believe that he can. The grim, unsolved murder of Belarus-born journalist Pavlo Sheremet in 2015, which was blown up in central Kiev, is evidence of the restrictions (or involvement) of the Ukrainian state, it is said.
“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 medical doctor and community leader who arrived in Ukraine a year ago. She says she noticed many “strange people” gathering in the Belarusian diaspora.
“Being paranoid doesn’t mean you won’t be persecuted,” she says, quoting a phrase first circulated during Soviet times.
Friends say Shishov himself complained about a dick in his final days. He wrote down 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 Yuri Lebedev that he suspected Belarusians. or even Russian agents had infiltrated his organization, the Belarusian Home of Ukraine (BDU).
“Vitaly took me aside and said, Yury, watch out, these guys are here,” says Lebedev. “I mumbled and said something like ‘Yeah, let’s stay vigilant’.”
Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, 55, a MP who headed the Ukrainian security service SBU from 2014 to 2015, says he believes foreign intelligence services are responsible for Shishov’s untimely demise. “Belarus or Russia, nobody else was interested in such a demonstrative death,” he says. “And it looks like a total f *** from our boys. Shishov has complained about being followed and the SBU should have gotten over it. “
Nalyvaichenko rejects a widespread view that Ukraine’s own security agencies are themselves being compromised by infiltration. “Young, ideological” counterintelligence officers have long since washed up bad apples, he says. But he says the Belarusian KGB and Russian FSB are heavily invested in Ukraine, supported by the common language and local criminals.
“The bad news is that their behavior is changing and they are becoming more confident,” he says. “It used to be more about the effect of blowing up a few grenades with minimal damage. Since the murder or the sheremet, I believe we have entered a new phase in which the result counts.”
Bellingcat, the investigative team that uncovered the Skripal assassins, Alexei Navalny’s likely poisoners and others, claims they have evidence that at least one “Russian agent” is working in Shishov’s entourage. Christo Grozev, the outlet’s star detective, says the investigation has already found “some overlap” between Shishov’s recent moves and the Russian officer. But so far it is not enough to draw concrete conclusions.
Many in the Belarusian diaspora are still very suspicious of the BDU, the organization to which Shishov dedicated his last months.
They point to the shadowy involvement of the right-wing extremist nationalists Rodion Batulin and Sergei Korotikh alias “Botsman”. Both are originally from Belarus, but are better known as the architects of the controversial “Azov” military battalion of Ukraine. In the year before Shishov’s death, the two men were apparently very interested in new emigrants from Belarus: They helped them to “solve” legal problems and found apartments and jobs, often in gray sectors. Critics say this created a cycle of addiction.
The same critics point to a number of suspicious deaths and suicides in the immediate vicinity of the men.
Korotchikh, who graduated from an academy of the Belarusian KGB before being naturalized as a Ukrainian citizen, plays a role in the investigation into the unsolved murder of Pavlo Sheremet. He was a close comrade of the prime suspect in the murder of Sheremets cameraman Dmitry Zavadsky in Minsk in 2000. However, there is no conclusive evidence linking Korotkhikh to any of the crimes. Before his own death, Sheremet wrote an article in which he said he believed the neo-Nazi had nothing to do with the murder of his cameraman.
The Ukrainian security service now appears to have made its own judgment on Batulin. At the beginning of August, only a few days after Shishov’s death, the mixed martial arts fighter was banned from entering the country for reasons of “national security”. 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 telephone interview, Korotkikh told The Independent that he would not “fantasize” about Batulin’s problems or the reasons for Shishov’s death. He “hardly knew” Schischow, he says and rejects “stupid” allegations that he could still work for the Belarusian KGB. Korotkikh “is and always was” a sworn opponent of Lukashenko. “I blogged on election day to say I thought it should go,” he says. “And now I think he should be locked up and possibly even shot.”
The Korotkikh blog fact check adds gray to an already hazy picture. Yes, the Azov Hardman 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 across from the Bessarabian market. Kovalev pours himself a drink before telling me what he found out on his own trip, how he dragged himself and his bar from central Minsk to Kiev via smoke grenades, police raids, divorce and Poles.
“This diaspora has more to offer than meets the eye,” he says. If you knew in Minsk from the readiness to carry the white and red Belarusian independence flag, which side someone is on, it would look different in Ukraine, he says: “Kiev is the only place in the world where I’ve seen people who have him wearing a swastika next to the Belarusian independence flag. “
Regulars in the bar, who mostly stand on the left, say they’ve all been watching out for their safety since the Shishov episode. They don’t think the police will protect them, they say; some have even taken protection into their own hands. But for them the threat does not come so much from Lukashenko’s agents, but from the local right-wing extremist.
“We understand that you have to divide the diaspora into three parts,” one of them tells me (he asks to remain anonymous). “There are some you can be friends with; some you can’t; and some you just don’t know enough about.”
“Not everyone who comes to town for the first time knows that,” he adds, “and Shishov, I think, could have been one of them.”