Interior Minister Vasyl Tsushko has left Ukraine for medical treatment in Germany. President Viktor Yushchenko had accused him of breaking the law when Tsushko ordered riot police to storm the Prosecutor-General’s Office (PGO) on May 24, at the height of a political crisis caused by Yushchenko’s controversial decree to dissolve parliament. This has prompted some observers and political rivals to suggest that Tsushko is simply hiding to avoid prison. Others say his claims of victimization may help his Socialist Party (SPU) in the upcoming parliamentary election campaign. Tsushko’s friends, however, say that his condition is serious, and that he was deliberately poisoned.
On May 24 Yushchenko told a press conference in Kyiv that Tsushko had violated the law when he ordered policemen to storm the PGO, ostensibly in order to protect Svyatoslav Piskun, whom Yushchenko had just fired as prosecutor-general (see EDM, May 29). “What Tsushko did today is a crime,” Yushchenko declared. Consequently, three criminal cases were opened against Tsushko: by Piskun’s successors at the PGO for illegally occupying a public building and for abuse of office, and by the Security Service (SBU) for illegally occupying a public building. Tsushko could face up to 10 years in prison if found guilty.
Tsushko further spoiled relations with Yushchenko when on May 26, as some 2,000 interior troops loyal to Yushchenko were moving on Kyiv from the regions, he ordered traffic police to intercept them. That same day, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions — allies of the SPU — released a sensational statement alleging that the newly appointed first deputy secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, Yushchenko ally Oleksandr Turchynov, would not stop short of assassinating Tsushko. The statement said that a plan allegedly devised by Turchynov provided for “getting rid of Tsushko under the guise of a car accident or deterioration of his health.”
Yushchenko scolded Tsushko for his behavior in a telephone conversation on May 26. Tsushko reportedly tried to explain his actions at the PGO by emotions and lack of information, but Yushchenko found this excuse lame. According to Kommersant’s Mustafa Nayem, Yushchenko invited Tsushko to his offices, but Tsushko refused to go, fearing arrest. On May 27, when Yushchenko and Yanukovych reached an agreement to settle the political crisis, Tsushko was hospitalized and diagnosed with a heart attack.
This, however, remained unknown to the public until May 30, when the Interior Ministry’s press service said that Tsushko’s heart condition was so serious that “doctors forbade all communication with him.” An aide to Tsushko, lawyer Tetyana Montyan, told ICTV that she had seen Tsushko in the hospital and that he was “half dead.” She said that Tsushko told her that his illness had been caused by poisoning, and that he asked her to make public the name of the person who poisoned him if he dies.
The poisoning allegation was taken rather skeptically by the PGO, the SBU, and the Interior Ministry’s press service, all of which said that they had no information about such an attack. Socialist MP Yevhen Filindash, speaking in parliament on June 1, insisted that Tsushko had been poisoned, and hinted that he held Yushchenko’s aides responsible. Meanwhile, on May 31 Tsushko was flown to a hospital in Germany where surgeons reportedly performed a coronary bypass for him.
This did not mollify Tsushko’s rivals. Yaroslav Kendzer, a prominent member of Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine party, suggested that Tsushko had fled Ukraine in order to avoid prison. As Tsushko has not been in contact with either journalists or law-enforcement officials, rumors about the reasons behind his hospitalization keep multiplying. Several media outlets have reported that a stimulant was found in his blood that could have triggered a heart attack. Glavred, a website close to Yushchenko’s team, reported that German doctors had diagnosed Tsushko with a nervous breakdown.
Ukrainians may be inclined to believe that Tsushko has fallen the victim of conspiracy. Mystery still surrounds the fates of his two predecessors in the post of interior minister: after the Orange Revolution, Yuriy Kravchenko committed suicide, while Mykola Bilokon fled Ukraine to Russia. Also, Tsushko’s poisoning would not be the first in Ukrainian politics: it is widely believed that Yushchenko was deliberately poisoned in 2004, which arguably helped him win the presidential election.
Tsushko’s case, ironically, may now prompt Yushchenko’s enemies to accuse Yushchenko of conspiring against his political opponent. The presence of a “martyr” among their ranks may help the SPU raise its profile in the run-up to the early parliamentary elections scheduled for September 30. The informed weekly Zerkalo nedeli has suggested that Tsushko may top the SPU candidate list for the elections. Before Tsushko’s mysterious illness, opinion polls showed that the SPU might not clear the 3% barrier to parliament.
(Channel 5, May 24; Ukrayinska pravda, May 26, June 4; ICTV, May 30; UNIAN, May 31, June 1; Glavred.info, ProUA.com, June 1; Zerkalo nedeli, June 2)