On Saturday September 18, opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko, the front-runner in the October presidential elections, spoke in front of 70,000 supporters in Kyiv upon his return from Vienna. Yushchenko warned the authorities, “We will not be poisoned!” Bullets or KamAZ trucks would not destroy those like himself, Yuschenko added, as many thousands more would follow in the footsteps of Vadym Hetman (the National Bank chairman murdered in 1998), Vyacheslav Chornovil (a nationalist killed in a mysterious car accident in 1999), Heorhiy Gongadze (the opposition journalist murdered in 2000) “and many, many more good people of Ukraine” (Ukrayinska pravda, September 18).
Yushchenko’s use of the word “poisoning” was deliberate. His election campaign believes he dodged a (second) assassination attempt, this time by poison. Oleksandr Zinchenko, head of Yushchenko’s campaign, told a press conference, “There is enough evidence to say that it was an attempt on the life of presidential candidate Yushchenko” (Reuters, September 17).
On September 6, Yushchenko became acutely ill, and Ukrainian doctors diagnosed him as having food poisoning. Nevertheless, his heath failed to improve. On September 10, Yushchenko was sent to Vienna to be consulted by Austrian doctors at the Rudolfinerhaus clinic.
Eleven highly qualified Austrian doctors diagnosed his illness as “acute pancreatitis accompanied by interstitial edematous changes” (Interfax-Ukraine, September 17). The mortality rate from this condition is 15%; when it is not treated the mortality rate is as high as 80% (UNIAN, September 17). Yushchenko’s team were quick to point out that an autopsy had diagnosed Our Ukraine parliamentary deputy Oleh Oleksenko, who died in 2002, to have suffered from the same illness as Yushchenko.
Tests revealed that Yushchenko’s ill health was, “due to a serious viral infection and chemical substances which are not normally found in food products,” Zinchenko claimed (Reuters, September 17). In other words, Yushchenko’s illness was not due to food poisoning, as the Ukrainian doctors initially claimed, but to chemical poisoning.
Political commentator Mikhail Pogrebybnsky, a consultant to Viktor Medvedchuk’s Social Democratic United Party (SDPUo), denied that this could be classified as an assassination attempt. In his view, it was an example of dirty tricks employed by part of Yushchenko’s campaign staff (Ukrayinska pravda, September 18). Pogrebynsky claimed that such tactics would fail to get Yushchenko elected and would not be in the interests of the authorities.
The presidential administration was even more dismissive about the assassination claim. Vasyl Baziv, the former Toronto Ukrainian Consul General and currently deputy head of the presidential administration, gave the Yushchenko campaign two rather odd bits of advice. First, he suggested having other members of the election team (such as Zinchenko) test Yushchenko’s food. Second, if illnesses still occurred, then drink 100 grams of vodka.
Iryna Herashchenko, Yushchenko’s press secretary, replied, “Viktor Andriyovych [Yushchenko], unlike our current president, does not remove his stress by drinking 100 grams of vodka” (Ukrayinska pravda, September 17). Earlier this year President Leonid Kuchma, when asked if he ever used psychiatrists to deal with stress, answered “No,” because he felt it better to simply drink 100 grams of vodka.
Such heavy-handed tactics have only served to radicalize Yushchenko by moving him closer to his populist ally, Yulia Tymoshenko, and the general mood of Ukrainian voters. This was clearly witnessed in the September 18 rally in Kyiv, when Yushchenko gave one of his most radical speeches. “Bandits in power understand that the elections will be the test of the authorities by the people,” Yushchenko told the crowd (Ukrayinska pravda, September 18).
The Yushchenko election team claims the first attempt to assassinate their candidate came in July using a large KamAZ truck. Ukrainian political opponents have a long history of fatal car “accidents.” In a 1999 video leaked to then-opposition presidential candidate Yevhen Marchuk, Ukrainian Ministry of Interior officers admitted they had organized the “accident” that led to the death of opposition Rukh leader Vyacheslav Chornovil in March 1999. A KamAZ truck hit the car carrying Chornovil, killing him and the driver. Yuriy Chechyk, a journalist for Radio Liberty, and Vladimir Efremov, a newspaper editor who was traveling to Kyiv to give evidence in the California trial of former Prime Minister and opposition member Pavlo Lazarenko, also died in suspicious car accidents. Valeriy Malyev, head of the state arms export agency Ukrspetseksport, suffered a suspicious incident in March 2002. His “accident” occurred just as the scandal broke regarding the sale of Kolchuga radars to Iraq. Malyev had attended the July 2000 meeting when Kuchma authorized the sale.
In late July a KamAZ truck attempted three times to drive Yushchenko’s car off the road in the southern Ukrainian oblast of Mykolaiv. Yushchenko was on a campaign trip with five deputies from his Our Ukraine parliamentary faction, together with state-appointed bodyguards from a former KGB unit designed to protect officials and hired members of a private security firm. His security guards arrested the driver when he refused to provide any identification papers, and they handed him over to the local police.
The opposition camp has taken these incidents very seriously. Yushchenko’s campaign headquarters believe, “A month before their ouster, the authorities are ready to launch any kind of attacks to ensure their survival, including the elimination of competitors” (Reuters, September 17). Failing this, medical treatment took Yushchenko off the campaign trail for 12 days.