-- MOSCOW-- Ukrainian officials are suggesting that the killing of a prominent journalist by a car bomb today in central Kiev was intended to "destabilize" the country, with some hinting that Russia may have played a role.
Pavel Sheremet died when a bomb that had apparently been placed in his car exploded as he was driving through Ukraine’s capital on his way to work, shocking the country with what is one of the most brazen killings of a reporter there in over a decade.
Sheremet, 44, was a veteran and highly respected reporter, well known as a liberal voice who was often critical of authorities in both Ukraine and Russia. In Kiev, he was a presenter on a radio network and also a reporter for a popular news site, Ukrayinskaya Pravda.
Ukrainian police have said they are investigating whether Sheremet’s murder may have been connected to his work. But officials were also quick to suggest larger motives behind the killing.
“It seems to me that this was done with one goal -- to destabilize the country,” Ukraine’s president Petro Poroshenko said in remarks quoted by the Interfax news agency.
Ukraine Interior Ministry spokesman Artem Shevchenko called the bombing "a brazen murder” that was “aimed at destabilizing" the country. A ministry adviser, Zoryan Skiryak, wrote on his Facebook account that the investigation could not exclude the possibility of a “Russian trace” in the bombing.
The political atmosphere in Ukraine is fraught two years after a revolution toppled the nation's then-president and amid a smoldering civil war in the country's East, where government forces are fighting pro-Russian rebels who are backed by Moscow.
Ukrainian politicians and officials are often quick to blame events at home on Russia, which has deployed special forces in eastern Ukraine. Ukraine’s security forces have previously arrested men in parts other than the East whom they accused of being Russian saboteurs, including some detained for allegedly stockpiling grenades and guns.
But, among Sheremet’s colleagues, there was largely shock and bafflement over who could who had killed him or what the motive could be, with many suggesting the murder was likely connected to his professional activities.
The editor-in-chief of Ukrayinskaya Pravda, Sevgil Musaeva-Borovik, said during an interview with the Ukrainian television network 112 Ukraine that Sheremet had complained over the past year that he was being followed.
Although Sheremet was often highly critical of the Russian government, most of his recent work had focused on Ukrainian politics.
Other journalist colleagues and friends of Sheremet suggested in interviews with Ukrainian media that Belorussian authorities could have ordered the killing. Sheremet was a native of Belarus and a longtime, high-profile opponent of the regime there. He ran an opposition website, Belarus Partisan, that has posted articles critical of Belorussian president, Aleksander Lukashenko.
Most of those who spoke publicly said that Sheremet had not appeared worried or under pressure before the attack. “There wasn’t any hint of something bad,” Tatiana Ivanskaya, Sheremet’s co-presenter at Vesti-Radio told the station. “He didn’t tell us about being followed.”
Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Yuri Lutsenko, said authorities are investigating the explosion as a planned “professional” killing and ruled out a technical fault as a cause for the blast.
The moment of the explosion was caught by a CCTV camera. In the video, a fiery explosion is seen blasting out of the car’s front as it crossed an intersection. Witnesses quickly hurry to the car to help, as flames engulf the vehicle. Other videos of the aftermath that were shot on mobile phones show Sheremet being pulled out of the car, his legs apparently mangled.
Sheremet had been on his way to present his show at the Vesti radio station and was alone in the car of his partner, Olena Prytula, a founding editor of Ukrayinskaya Pravda.
A crusading reporter, Sheremet was perhaps better known in Russia than in Ukraine, having worked for years with one of Russia's main television networks, ORT. He left the network in 2008 in protest -- at what he saw as the increasing loss of free speech at the broadcaster as the Kremlin clamped down on the media in Russia -- and warned the country was headed towards authoritarianism.
He later moved to Ukraine, where he began working for Ukrayinskaya Pravda, one of the country’s top news sites that closely covers political affairs. Often covering human rights issues and known as a fearless critic of authorities, he was jailed in his native Belarus in 1997 during a crackdown on political opposition there.
"He always had a broad smile and the unwavering belief that good will overcome evil in the end," Katerina Gordeeva, a former colleague of Sheremet, wrote in a tribute on the Russian news site, Meduza.
Sheremet’s death received intense coverage by Russian media. A spokesman for Russian president Vladimir Putin today expressed his condolences to Sheremet’s family, saying the killing of a Russian citizen was “a cause of serious concern in the Kremlin”.
Maria Zakharova, a spokesman for Russia’s foreign ministry praised Sheremet as a “professional, not afraid to tell the authorities what he thought.” She added, though, that Sheremet’s murder suggested that Ukraine was “becoming a brotherly tomb for journalists and journalism,” apparently referring to Russia’s own dark history of reporters getting murdered over their work.
Sheremet’s death follows a series of apparently politically-motivated murders in Ukraine. In April 2015, a lawmaker and a pro-Russian journalist were both shot dead in Kiev. More recently, a lawyer representing two Russian military officers captured in eastern Ukraine was found murdered after mysteriously going missing.
The U.S. embassy in Kiev released a statement calling Sheremet "a fearless practitioner and supporter of freedom of speech" and said it welcomed Ukraine's authorities' efforts to find his killers.
The murder of Sheremet had painful echoes for the Ukrayinskaya Pravda news site. Its founder, Horgiy Gongadze, was kidnapped and decapitated in 2000, after criticizing Ukraine’s then-president Leonid Kuchma. That death was viewed as helping to precipitate Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004.