vItaly Shishov lived with his girlfriend in a rented house on the suburban edge of West Kiev. It wasn’t the life he had back in Belarus, but the moments of his new shack. Nature was never far away, and Shishov, a fitness fanatic, often ran to the adjacent forestland to run whenever he got the chance.
There his body was found in full gear and hanging on the morning of 3 August.
Two months later, Ukrainian police have yet to publicly confirm how they think the 26-year-old activist died. A source with knowledge of the official investigation says suicide is the most likely cause. But among the thousands of Belarusians fleeing the bloody regime of Alexander Lukashenko for Kiev, few are ready to believe it.
After all there is history.
“My first thought upon hearing of Shishov’s death was to run,” says Andrei Tkachov, a former fitness instructor who sought protection in the Ukrainian capital last winter. “Any Belarusian with a mind knows that hanging is one of the regime’s favorite aphrodisiacs.”
Tkachov, a grassroots organizer during the Covid-19 pandemic, left Belarus after Lukashenko was caught in action in August 2020. He says he was beaten so hard by the police that he lost consciousness, only to fall behind a van, sandwiched between layers of other wounded bodies, limbs and pools of blood.
“They called it renovation,” he says. “They kept saying ‘You bastard, you s***, and we’re here to renew yo-‘.”
The activist pauses mid-sentence, distracted by a minivan pulling up next to our desk. He apologizes: A black van still has the power to freeze, he says. These were the vehicles used by Lukashenko’s Omon riot police in their mission in Minsk.
Takakov says the Belarusian community in Ukraine understands the risks of life in their new home. He says that Minsk and Moscow have long arms, and are assisted by local criminals who pursue them. Then there is the Ukrainian far right, which brings in its own dynamics.
“Life is cheap in Ukraine,” says Tkachov. “I found out the other day how much it costs to kill someone in Kiev. $10,000.”
He refuses to elaborate.
Soon after the death of Vitaly Shishov, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky vowed to protect the Belarusian community in Ukraine. Overall, they don’t believe he can. They say the 2015 unsolved murder of Belarusian-born journalist Pavlo Sheremet, blown up in the center of Kiev, is evidence of Ukrainian state borders (or involvement).
“No Belarusian worker can be sure that he is not on the list, or not seen here,” says Lidzya Tarasenko, 37, a medicine and community leader who arrived in Ukraine a year ago. She says she has seen many “strange people” gather around the Belarusian diaspora.
“If you’re crazy, it doesn’t mean you’re not being followed,” she says, citing a phrase first tied to Soviet times.
Friends say that Shishov himself complained of a tail in his last days. He wrote down the number plates of the suspicious cars and informed the police and security services. Three weeks before he died, the activist told his close friend Yuri Lebedev that he suspected the Belarusian. Or even Russian agents had infiltrated his organization, the Belarusian Home of Ukraine (BDU).
“Vitaly took me aside and said, Yuri, look, these people are here,” says Lebedev. “I murmured and said something like ‘Yeah, let’s be careful.'”
55-year-old Valentin Nelyvychenko, an MP who headed the SBU of Ukraine’s security services during 2014-2015, says he believes foreign spy agencies were responsible for Shishov’s untimely end. “Belarus or Russia, no one else was interested in this kind of demonstrative death,” he says. “And it looks like a complete f***k from our guys. Shishov complained about being chased, and the SBU should have looked into it.”
Nalyvaichenko rejects the common idea that Ukraine’s own security agencies are compromising themselves with infiltration. “Young, ideological” counter-intelligence executives have long picked out the bad apples, he insists. But he says the Belarusian KGB and Russian FSB invest heavily in Ukraine, helped by common language and local criminals.
“The bad news is that their behavior is changing and they are becoming more assertive,” he says. “Before it was more about impact, blow up a few grenades with minimal damage. Since Killing or Sheremet, I think we’ve entered a new phase where it’s the outcome that matters.”
Bellingcat, the investigative team that uncovered the Skripal killers, the possible poisoning of Alexei Navalny, and others, claims to have evidence of at least one “Russian agent” working within Shishov’s crew. The outlet’s star sleuth Kristo Grozev says the investigation has revealed “some crossover” between Shishov’s final movements and that of the Russian officer. But not enough to draw any firm conclusions so far.
Many of the Belarusian diaspora remain highly suspicious of the BDU, with Shishov devoting his final months.
They point to the shadowy involvement of far-right nationalists Rodion Batulin and Sergei Korotich, aka the “botsman”. Both are originally from Belarus, but they are better known as the architects of Ukraine’s controversial “Azov” military battalion. In the years leading up to Shishov’s death, both men apparently took a keen interest in new immigrants from Belarus: helping them “solve” legal problems, finding them flats and jobs, often in gray areas. Opponents say that created a cycle of dependence.
The same critics point to the many suspicious deaths and suicides in the immediate crew of men.
Korotkhikh, who graduated from an academy of the Belarusian KGB before naturalizing as a Ukrainian citizen, is involved in the investigation of the unsolved murder of Pavlo Sheremet. He was a close accomplice of the prime suspect in the 2000 murder of Sheremet’s cameraman, Dmitry Zavadsky, in Minsk. However, there is no conclusive evidence linking Korotkhikh to any crime. Before his death, Sheremet wrote an excerpt stating that he believed the neo-Nazi had nothing to do with the murder of his cameraman.
Meanwhile, the Security Service of Ukraine has given its verdict on Batulin. In early August, just days after Shishov’s death, the mixed martial arts fighter was banned from entering the country on grounds of “national security”. It is unclear whether this has anything to do with the ongoing investigation into Shishov’s death, but the timing certainly looks suspicious.
In a fast-paced phone interview, Korotkikh told The Granthshala that he would not “imagine” about Batulin’s problems nor the causes of Shishov’s death. He “barely knew” Shishov, he says, and dismisses “stupid” allegations that he might still be working for the Belarusian KGB. Korotkikh “is and always” was a staunch opponent of Lukashenko. “On election day I made a blog to say that I think they should quit,” he says. “And now I think he should go to jail, and possibly shoot him.”
The fact-checking of the Korotkikh blog adds gray to an already blurry picture. Yes, Azov Hardman criticizes Lukashenko, but he does so without tremendous passion. And he also suggested the only option, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, is a “Russian agent”, and therefore worse.
“If you’re confused, welcome to our world,” jokes Gleb Kovalev, owner of Kiev’s Belarusian diaspora bar, which has just opened across the street from the Bessarabian market. Kovalev pours a drink before telling me what he’d found on his travels, smoking grenades, police raids, divorces, and driving himself and his bar through Poland from central Minsk to Kiev.
“There’s more to this migrant than meets the eye,” he says. If in Minsk, you would know which side someone was carrying the white and red Belarusian independence flag, in Ukraine things are different, he says: “Kiev is the only place in the world I have seen people carrying Belarusian A swastika with the flag of freedom.”
Regulars at the bar, who are mostly on the left, say that they have all become more careful about their safety since the Shishov episode. They don’t believe the police will protect them, they say; Some have even taken security into their own hands. But for them, the threat is not so much from Lukashenko’s agents as from a local one from afar.
“We understand that you have to divide the diaspora into three,” one of them tells me (he asks to remain anonymous). “There are people you can be friends with; those you can’t; and those you don’t know enough about.”
“Not everyone who comes to town for the first time realizes this,” he adds, “and Shishov, I think, may be one of them.”
Credit: www.independent.co.uk /