Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko has made it clear that he holds Davyd Zhvania, the sponsor of the populist People’s Self-Defense bloc (NS), responsible for his mysterious poisoning at the height of the presidential election race in 2004—Zhvania denies this. Zhvania also insists that Yushchenko’s was a case of ordinary food poisoning, and that his poisoning with dioxin was nothing more than a myth created in order to help Yushchenko win the election.
The next presidential race, expected in 2009, is probably at stake now. Yushchenko’s team suspects NS and personally Zhvania—a businessman of Georgian descent, Yushchenko’s former close ally, and the godfather of his son—of supporting Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s presidential ambitions. NS is part of Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine People’s Self-Defense bloc (NUNS), but the presidential secretariat suspects that it is loyal to Tymoshenko, who may run for president against Yushchenko. Zhvania’s claims that Yushchenko’s dioxin poisoning was a fabrication cast a shadow over Yushchenko’s integrity, potentially spoiling his chances of re-election.
Zhvania’s troubles began this past May, when the Prosecutor-General’s Office (PGO) opened a criminal case suspecting that he illegally obtained Ukrainian citizenship. In return, Zhvania claimed that Yushchenko’s wife had illegally kept her U.S. citizenship, and that the criminal case against him was in revenge for his disobeying Yushchenko’s orders regarding the recent mayoral election in Kyiv (see EDM, May 29). Yushchenko’s team denied Zhvania’s allegations.
Speaking in an interview on May 30, Zhvania sensationally claimed that Yushchenko was not poisoned with dioxin in 2004 (RFE/RL, May 30). He said Yushchenko suffered from an attack of pancreatitis caused by ordinary food poisoning, and that his face was subsequently disfigured not by dioxin but by an inflammation not related to the poisoning. Yushchenko’s team, he said, decided to sell it to the public as deliberate poisoning (Komsomolskaya Pravda Ukraina, July 2).
Asked why he did not reveal this earlier, Zhvania said that he did not want the spirit of the pro-Yushchenko Orange Revolution in November-December 2004 to be curbed. Zhvania said that the tests which showed the presence of dioxin in Yushchenko’s body were fake (BBC, June 3). An international group of doctors who treated Yushchenko after 2004 denied this allegation. They said that 90 percent of the dioxin has been removed from his body since then (Channel 5, June 11).
Zhvania also denied the widespread belief that Yushchenko was poisoned at a dinner with the then head of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), Ihor Smeshko, and his deputy Volodymyr Satsyuk on September 5, 2004. “It was a beautiful myth for a post-Soviet country. Look how it sounds: former KGB people wanted to kill a democratic president,” Zhvania told the Ukrainian edition of a popular Russian daily (Komsomolskaya Pravda Ukraina, ibid). Zhvania did not deny that he organized that dinner as the then deputy head of Yushchenko’s election HQ. He said that Yushchenko’s security as a presidential candidate was discussed there (Ukrainska Pravda, July 7-8).
Yushchenko, speaking in an interview with an Austrian daily, insisted that he was poisoned at the dinner. He said that three individuals were involved who later fled to Russia and obtained Russian citizenship (Der Standard, July 10). The PGO indirectly confirmed that Satsyuk was one of the three, reporting shortly after Yushchenko’s interview that Russia refused to extradite him. However, officially Ukraine wants Satsyuk extradited on charges unrelated to the poisoning (Kommersant Ukraine, July 17).
Zhvania was for the first time openly accused of involvement in Yushchenko’s poisoning on July 23, when Yushchenko’s legal advisor Ihor Pukshyn claimed that “Zhvania, directly or indirectly, ‘helped’ Yushchenko eat poison” (Ukrainska Pravda, July 23). Speaking at a press conference the following day, Yushchenko, asked whether Zhvania had been involved in his poisoning, said “I think yes” and added, “to put it mildly” (Channel 5, July 24). Yushchenko later explained why he suspected Zhvania, saying that Zhvania insisted on the meeting with the SBU heads in September 2004, which Yushchenko had not planned to attend, and that Zhvania was the only member of his staff who was against flying him to Austria for treatment (Ukrainska Pravda, July 24). Yushchenko was flown to a private clinic in Austria several days after the dinner, when his condition worsened.
Zhvania threatened to sue both Pukshyn and Yushchenko for the accusations against him. He also threatened Yushchenko with impeachment (Interfax-Ukraine, July 24). Zhvania may find supporters for an impeachment motion outside his NS. Pukshyn accused Tymoshenko of supporting Zhvania and using his allegations in her rivalry with Yushchenko. “As she has never concealed her presidential ambitions, it is very convenient for her to cast a shadow over Yushchenko,” he said (Ukrainska Pravda, July 23). Viktor Baloha, the chief of Yushchenko’s secretariat, also issued a statement accusing Tymoshenko of supporting Zhvania. He claimed that she was conspiring against Yushchenko in order to split NUNS and forge a new coalition in parliament with his rivals (www.president.gov.ua, July 28).