Ahead of the December 26 repeat presidential runoff, which will again pit opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko against Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, debate has resumed over Yushchenko’s mysterious illness. On December 11, the Vienna-based Rudolfinerhaus clinic announced that Yushchenko had definitely been poisoned by dioxin, a highly toxic substances that is difficult to neutralize. Yushchenko turned to Rudolfinerhaus in September, complaining of severe stomach and back pain.
His face remains distorted by ulcers and pockmarks, which prompted the ad hoc parliamentary commission set up to investigate his illness to claim that it was due to a viral herpes infection. The Prosecutor-General’s Office then closed a criminal investigation launched in October. Last weekend, the Austrian doctors who treated Yushchenko stopped short of corroborating his claim that he had deliberately been poisoned to derail his election campaign.
At a December 10 press conference in Kyiv, prior to visiting Rudolfinerhaus for additional tests over the weekend, Yushchenko characterized his poisoning as a “political reprisal.” On returning from Vienna on December 12, Yushchenko promised to shortly supply the Ukrainian public with proof that “the authorities did it.” “Time is needed to complete this investigation,” he said. And a serious investigation will take place, if Prosecutor-General Svyatoslav Piskun is to be trusted.
On December 11 Piskun re-launched the investigation, which had been closed by his predecessor Hennady Vasylyev, a Yanukovych crony. Piskun was fired by President Leonid Kuchma last year, replaced with Vasylyev, and then reinstated as Prosecutor-General on December 10, following a December 9 court verdict saying that his dismissal was illegal. In an interview with the opposition weekly Svoboda on December 14, Piskun expressed sympathy with the opposition protests over the controversial November 21 runoff, which forced the authorities to call a repeat election. Piskun said he would be prepared to work under a new president.
Yushchenko welcomed the re-opening of the case, while the EU expressed its concern over the potential implications. “If there has been a case of deliberate poisoning, those who are responsible must be brought to justice,” declared Emma Udwin, an EU Commission spokeswoman (Reuters, December 13). And Yanukovych, speaking on the same day, denied complicity in Yushchenko’s poisoning and wished him a speedy recovery.
The chairman of the parliamentary commission looking into Yushchenko’s poisoning, former KGB officer Volodymyr Sivkovych, called the Austrian clinic’s conclusions “nonsense.” Sivkovych, whose obstinate belief in the herpes diagnosis is shared by the Ukrainian authorities, lashed out at Yushchenko’s Vienna-based doctor Mykola Korpan, accusing him of “having made a lot of statements based on God knows what.” Sivkovych said that his commission would not take the Austrian conclusions seriously until it received “official documents.” Yet not all of Sivkovych’s colleagues share his opinion. Oleksandr Volkov, another member of the parliamentary commission who was once an influential aide to Kuchma and now has become a vocal supporter of Yushchenko, accused Sivkovych of politicizing the issue. The commission’s work has been effectively blocked by internal disagreements, and it is expected to reconvene only after the December 26 election.
Ukrainian First Deputy Minister of Health Oleksandr Orda, who has long been jealous of Yushchenko’s trust in foreign doctors, tried to cast doubt on Rudolfinerhaus’s credentials. “I would recommend the people who tested Yushchenko’s blood to read special literature on this,” he said. “It is impossible to determine the absence or presence of dioxin from blood tests.” Orda also stated that if Yuschenko was really poisoned deliberately, it could not happen overnight. “In order for dioxin to produce the effect on Yushchenko that we are observing now, it must have been administered in small doses for some two, two-and-a-half months,” (Itar-Tass, December 13). Orda’s Russian counterpart holds a similar opinion. “Dioxin does not belong to [the group of known] fast-acting poisons,” according to Yuri Ostapenko, head of the Russian Health Ministry’s technology center (ORT, December 13). “The effect of poisoning will be felt some time later, from several days to several weeks.” If Orda and Ostapenko are right, the suspicions of those observers who suggest that Yushchenko’s early September dinner with Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) chief Ihor Smeshko and his deputy, Volodymyr Satsyuk, and Yushchenko’s subsequent illness were not pure coincidence, may be groundless.
One of those observers, SBU general Valery Kravchenko, has hinted that Moscow might have assisted Ukrainian secret agents. Talking to the opposition TV Channel 5, Kravchenko, just released from prison following his accusations against the authorities early this year of spying on opposition figures abroad, suggested that Yushchenko may have survived a plot by Ukrainian and Russian secret services thanks to secret agents’ “greediness.” “Maybe they put too little poison,” he said. “Maybe they put only half of it to keep something for themselves.” Be that as it may, the Austrian clinic’s conclusion that Yushchenko was poisoned, rather than contracted a benign viral infection, as his foes insist, is sure to gain him some points ahead of the crucial runoff.
(Inter TV, UNIAN, December 10; Channel 5, December 9, 11, 13, 14; Channel One (ORT), December 12; Itar-Tass, Interfax-Ukraine, Reuters, December 13; Svoboda, December 14)