Who Poisoned Yushchenko?
Austrian doctors have confirmed that Ukraine's opposition presidential candidate Victor Yushchenko has been poisoned with dioxin. The highly toxic substance was ingested orally and was probably given to him by a "third party."
After three months of uncertainty, the tests gave an explanation for the mysterious illness that has plagued Yushchenko since September. The poisoning has left the opposition leader with a badly disfigured face, but no lasting internal damage. He might, however, run an increased risk of cancer.
Yushchenko has insisted he was a victim of a murder plot for a long time. However, up until Saturday the medical team at the Vienna Rudolfinerhaus clinic where he was treated had not confirmed his allegations. The announcement of the test results confirming dioxin poisoning on Saturday sent shockwaves across Europe. Most newspapers ran stories accompanied by photographs of Yushchenko before and after he fell ill to show the disfiguring transformation of his face during the last months. In the scandal, which many compared to the plot of a Cold War spy novel, the question that remains is "Who poisoned Yushchenko?"
According to the Ukrainian newspaper Facts, the story started on September 5th, when Viktor Yushchenko had dinner with the security service director Igor Smeshko and his deputy Vladimir Satsyuk. Yushchenko asked them to "stop interfering in the political struggle." The opposition leader became sick several hours later, when the dinner was over.
Viktor Yushchenko's wife, Ekaterina Yushchenko, narrated the continuation of the story to Ukraine's newspaper Zerkalo Nedeli: "Viktor came home very late. I kissed him as usual and tasted something medical on my lips. I asked my husband, if he had taken medication. Viktor answered that he had not; he said he was tired."
In an interview for London's The Times on December 8th, Yushchenko's doctor Nikolai Korpan claimed for the first time that there was evidence that the illness was a result of a deliberate attempt at the presidential candidate's life.
Previously experts from Britain, the US and France had agreed that the mysterious illness was caused by one of three possible factors: a biological agent, a chemical agent, or a rare poison that had caused his mysterious illness. "This is no longer a question for discussion, " Dr Korpan said. "We are now sure that we can confirm which substances caused this illness. He received this substance from other people who had a specific aim. Asked if the aim had been to kill him, Dr. Korpan said: "Yes, of course."
However, hours after The Times story was published, Dr. Korpan denied making the remarks. "The suspicion of poisoning has until now neither been confirmed or excluded," Korpan was quoted as saying by the Austria Press Agency.
The Times stressed that proof that Mr. Yushchenko was deliberately poisoned would be a devastating blow to his opponent, Prime Minister Victor Yanukovich before the presidential run-off on December 28.
"It would raise questions about whether the poisoning was ordered by Mr. Yanukovich, his allies, or even the Kremlin, which fears that Mr. Yushchenko will take Ukraine out of its sphere of influence by joining NATO and the EU."
The Times pointed out that the supporters of Yanukovich have dismissed the poisoning theory, attributing his illness to food poisoning, drinking, or a severe form of herpes. In an earlier interview outgoing president Kuchma's son-in-law had presented a different hypothesis: "I believe he is sure it was poisoning. He's not a liar. But some people from his camp created this provocation against him, his image, the government and the country."
In an interview with France's Le Monde on Thursday, professor Michael Zimpfer, President of the Rudolfinerhaus clinic, also distanced himself from the charges raised by Dr Korpan as published by The Times. He said, "at this point, there is no formal proof of poisoning."
On Saturday, however, during a press conference, Michael Zimpfer confirmed that "there is no doubt about the fact that Yuschenko's disease has been caused by a case of poisoning by dioxin."
He added that the medical team "suspect involvement of an external party, but we cannot answer as to who cooked what or who was with him while he ate." The levels of dioxin found in the body of Mr. Yushchenko were more than a thousand times higher than the normal level.
UK's The Observer (Dec 11) compared the recent developments in Ukraine to the "Cold War world of a John le Carré novel." A senior official in the Yushchenko camp told The Observer that the poisoning was "clearly planned by professionals, perhaps former employees of the KGB." The source added the poison was called T-2, or "yellow rain" — linked to dioxins and the former Soviet Union's answer to America's Agent Orange — and that the CIA had been consulted in trying to identify it.
The same source said he did not think that the Russian government was involved. But he added: "This [poisoning] was the option for people who did not want him to qualify as president."
The article showed admiration for Yushchenko who "has confronted the disease in a fighting spirit, appearing during the mass protests without cosmetics to tell them that his scarred face was that of the dirty politics of Ukraine."
The Observer also suggested that the poisoning affair was damaging not only to Yushchenko's health, but also to Ukraine's future and its international image. "It is not known if his skin, like the politics of [Ukraine]... will rid itself of the scarring."
Meanwhile, a senior Russian medical official questioned allegations that the sensational illness of Viktor Yushchenko was the result of dioxin poisoning, reported Russia's Interfax (Dec 11). "Dioxins do not belong to immediate effect poisons: poisoning develops for years and decades, and so it is impossible to get a dose of dioxin today and get poisoning tomorrow," Yury Ostapenko, head of the Toxicology Information Center of the Russian Health Ministry, told the Moscow radio station Ekho Moskvy.
"It's true that one of the first signs of dioxin poisoning is skin damage, but that is a very distinctive form of acne. Besides, the way of delivery of the poison to the planned victim is dubitable," Ostapenko said.
In Ukraine, Yushchenko's supporters showed little surprise over the official findings, according to Russia's Pravda (Dec 11). "Everybody knew he was poisoned so we didn't really need official tests," one of the street protesters in Kiev was quoted as saying. Meanwhile, supporters of Yanukovich rejected any allegations that their candidate was involved in a murder plot.
France's Le Figaro (Dec 12) also noted that the political class in Ukraine did not seem particularly moved by the news, which only seemed to confirm what many Ukrainians suspected already. Moreover, according to this article, "in a country used to political assassination attempts, the hypothesis of a murder plot, if it is proven, will be just a new addition to an already long list." However, the article added that the particular circumstances of the poisoning affair could give this story extra resonance, as images of Yushchenko's disfigured face circulate across the world.
An editorial in Bulgaria's Dnevnik (Dec 12), which saw the affair as a confirmation that "life is scarier than fiction," speculated about the choice of dioxin and the motives of Yushchenkos' enemies. According to the author, the use of dioxin was probably meant to create a publicity effect and cause Yushchenko a long agony in front of the cameras. Apart from becoming a symbol of personal strength, Yushchenko became a "living warning to any opposition leader in the post-Soviet space, who might not be as lucky as him."
Le Figaro (Dec 12) presented different views on how the news will affect the electoral campaign. It quoted Member of Parliament, Stepan Havric, previously close to Yanukovich, who warned that there is a risk of a "radicalization of the campaign," if "the radicals in Yushchenko's entourage attempt to turn this into a media event by provoking a new wave of tensions and accusations."
Others, according to the same article, think that Yushchenko's popularity will increase. However they believe that his victory had already been assured before the news broke.
"Before I estimated his vote at 52%, now I believe he will receive almost 60% of the vote," said analyst Volodymir Malinkovich. He added that the news of the poisoning "will be a severe blow to Yanukovich, despite the fact that it is very difficult to prove he was involved" in the affair. "If we suppose this was organized by the authorities, who wished to disfigure [Yushchenko], then they lost."
View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Zornitsa Stoyanova-Yerburgh.