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Brazen Murder in Kiev Chills Russia’s Dissidents in Ukraine
The assassination of Putin critic Denis Voronenkov has Russian exiles wondering who's next on the Kremlin’s hit list.
KIEV, Ukraine — Shortly before 11:30 a.m. on March 23, Denis Voronenkov, a Russian lawmaker living in exile, was shot dead at point-blank range on the sidewalk in front of the Premier Palace Hotel in the heart of the Ukrainian capital.
Pavel Parshov, a 28-year-old former member of Ukraine’s National Guard, fired at least eight rounds at Voronenkov, killing the politician and injuring his bodyguard, who managed to fatally wound the assassin as he tried to escape. Voronenkov, a former Russian parliamentarian and Kremlin loyalist, had fled to Ukraine in October 2016 after losing his bid for re-election and being named in connection with a large-scale property fraud case. Under increasing pressure from Russian investigators and with his parliamentary immunity about to expire, Voronenkov left the country, quickly becoming a vocal — and unexpected — critic of President Vladimir Putin.
The murder has spawned numerous theories about Parshov’s motive. The Ukrainian government pointed the finger at the Kremlin just a few hours after the shooting. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called the murder “an act of state terrorism on the part of Russia,” an accusation Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied and predictably called “absurd.” But Voronenkov’s reputation in Moscow and willingness to speak out about high-profile corruption in Russia — and in Ukraine — left him with many enemies. In an interview in mid-February, Voronenkov suggested that long-standing personal grievances with Oleg Feoktistov, а former general in Russia’s domestic security service, the FSB, who was removed as vice president and head of security of the Russian oil company Rosneft in mid-March, was the driving force behind the corruption investigation that prompted him to emigrate.
Whether the Kremlin was involved or not, Voronenkov’s assassination has particularly alarmed the community of Russian political émigrés in Ukraine, which has long been a locus of activism for its neighbor’s opposition in exile — all the more so since the wave of political emigration following Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its subsequent support for separatism in eastern Ukraine. Facing pressure and, in some cases, imprisonment for their criticism of these projects undertaken by the Kremlin, a number of prominent members of the Russian opposition sought refuge in Kiev to continue their work.
Voronenkov, who left Russia with his wife, the celebrated opera singer and former lawmaker Maria Maksakova, is the latest in a line of high-profile Russians to be killed abroad. Over the last decade, journalists like Pavel Sheremet, businessmen like Boris Berezovsky and Alexander Perepilichny, and former officials like Mikhail Lesin and Alexander Litvinenko have died early deaths under suspicious circumstances in foreign cities. The belief that those in power in Russia will resort to murder to silence critics abroad has only been compounded by Voronenkov’s brazen assassination in downtown Kiev, which is already having a chilling effect on Ukraine’s community of Russian dissidents.
One member of this expatriate community is Ilya Ponomarev, who like Voronenkov is a former Russian parliamentarian and 2016 political émigré. Voronenkov was on his way to meet Ponomarev when he was shot. Famous for being the sole State Duma deputy to vote against the annexation of Crimea, Ponomarev — who is wanted in Russia on embezzlement charges he says were brought in retaliation for his vote against the annexation — has been under pressure from Russian authorities since he emigrated. While living in the United States before moving to Ukraine in 2016, Ponomarev learned that he would be jailed if he returns to Russia and has faced numerous threats against his life over the course of his self-imposed exile since 2014.
Like many Russian political émigrés in Ukraine, Ponomarev says he chose the country because he believes that reform and democratic development in Ukraine are the best catalysts for similar change in Russia. “It is very important that the revolution is successful in Ukraine, as an example for Russians. I can’t do anything immediately to help Russia, but I can do many things to help Ukraine,” Ponomarev said. Rather wistfully, the Russian exile described the period after he moved to Kiev as the happiest of his life: “I felt like I was breathing the air of freedom.”
Voronenkov’s murder, however, punctuated the end of that era. After Voronenkov’s assassination, Ponomarev received a new, state-assigned bodyguard who is never far from his detail, though he doesn’t think it will offer him much protection and hopes he won’t have one for long. “If a decision is taken to eliminate me, there will be no way to escape it. A bodyguard won’t be able to protect me,” Ponomarev said.
Still, Voronenkov seems to have been a different category of target than Ponomarev and other Russian émigrés. Early in his tenure as president, Putin famously told the influential opposition journalist Alexei Venediktov, “You know, Alexei, you are not a traitor. You are an enemy.” He explained, “Enemies are right in front of you, you are at war with them, then you make an armistice with them, and all is clear. A traitor must be destroyed, crushed.” Enemies can be tolerated, Putin seemed to suggest; traitors cannot.
Putin’s distinction still resonates today — and isn’t lost on the politician. “I’m trying to convince myself that I’m an enemy,” Ponomarev said. “I never switched sides. I never swore to be loyal to [the government].”
The same cannot be said of Voronenkov, who was in many ways an archetypal yes man of the Putininst system before defecting to Ukraine: Voronenkov served in the military and held a variety of positions in local, regional, and federal government before running for parliament in 2011. He and his wife towed the Kremlin line, voting for — and sometimes authoring — legislation that damaged Russian civil society and helped cement state control over, among other things, national media.
Pavel Shekhtman, a lesser-known member of the Russian opposition who was arrested more than 40 times for a variety of offenses involving critiques of Russian authorities, certainly never pledged loyalty to the Kremlin. Under house arrest and facing a prison sentence for a Facebook comment from February 2015 where he urged Ukrainian authorities to kill a Russian state news agency photographer covering the war in eastern Ukraine, Shekhtman escaped Moscow for Kiev, where he applied for political asylum. Since fleeing to Ukraine, Shekhtman has continued to speak out against Putin’s government, appearing in Ukrainian media and publishing articles on Russian opposition websites.
Shekhtman is not a household name in Russia or Ukraine; and not being a “personality” like Ponomarev or Voronenkov, he says, offers him a degree of protection. “I feel much safer than I did in Russia, even before the case was opened up against me,” Shekhtman said.
But even though most émigrés say they feel safer in Ukraine than in Russia — where many came under pressure from the country’s security and law enforcement organs — Ukraine has hardly proved to be a safe haven for Kremlin critics.
In July 2016, Pavel Sheremet was killed in a car bombing on his morning commute, in an attack likely connected to his work as an investigative journalist. Sheremet, a Russian citizen who was born in Belarus and who worked in Russia before moving to Ukraine, was critical of authorities in Kiev, Moscow, and Minsk. Sheremet’s murder has not been solved, and many in Kiev doubt it ever will be. In 2012, Russian opposition activist Leonid Razvozzhayev was kidnapped in broad daylight while in Kiev investigating how to be granted asylum in the West. Ukrainian authorities turned a blind eye as Razvozzhayev was driven off in a van to Moscow, where he was reportedly held in a basement for almost two days. He was later charged and sentenced to four and a half years in prison for his role in provoking a riot during a 2012 opposition protest in Moscow.
The lack of accountability for these crimes — and for a spate of high-profile murders of Ukrainian politicians in 2015 — makes many in the Russian opposition community skeptical about whether we will ever know who ordered Voronenkov’s murder. “There’s just not enough political will,” said Olga Kurnosova, a Russian opposition leader who has been involved in opposition politics since the early 1990s and now lives in Kiev.
Despite the dangers facing Russian dissidents living in Ukraine, Voronenkov believed his celebrity and his role as a witness in a treason trial against former President Viktor Yanukovych would protect him. In his last interview with Ukrainian media, published on the day of his murder, Voronenkov told the website Gordon that “openness and publicity are the only guarantees of my safety.” Indeed, in the last months of his life, Voronenkov conducted numerous interviews with major Western and Ukrainian news outlets. “There was a real danger that they would take me out of Ukraine to Russia in the trunk of a car,” he told Gordon, worrying that he would meet the same fate as Razvozzhayev.
In spite of threats against their physical well-being, members of the Russian opposition in exile like Fedor Klimenko, a journalist who left Russia after the annexation of Crimea, find Ukraine to be a more open environment in which to express their political beliefs. Before leaving Ukraine, Klimenko, Kurnosova, and a number of other activists formed the Maidan Solidarity Committee in Moscow in support of Ukraine’s uprising against Yanukovych. The group distributed information about the Maidan protests to counter Russian propaganda and held marches in solidarity with Ukrainians who opposed Yanukovych. When the war in eastern Ukraine escalated in April 2014, the group transformed into the Russian Anti-War Movement, which calls on Russians to oppose Russia’s “fratricidal war” against Ukraine through civil disobedience.
Under pressure from Russian authorities, Klimenko, Kurnosova, and other members of their circle moved to Ukraine, where they now engage in activism from afar. Klimenko helped found the opposition website Russian Monitor, where he is editor in chief, and together with Kurnosova established the Continental European Union Club, which aims to counter Russian propaganda around the world. Although they say they feel safer than they did before emigrating, Klimenko said he still receives frequent threats against his life.
“The last one came in a letter, about a week ago,” Klimenko said. Still, it’s “part and parcel of being a dissident and journalist.” Similarly, Kurnosova said she has received several threats since coming to Ukraine.
“Of course, it’s become more difficult [since Voronenkov’s murder],” she said. “But I don’t feel unsafe, even though I probably should.”
Photo credit: SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images