Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko has accused Moscow of hindering the investigation into his poisoning in 2004. What’s more, he hinted that Russia might actually have been behind the poisoning. An indignant Viktor Chernomyrdin, Russian ambassador to Ukraine, said that Russia was not involved and suggested that Ukraine should solve the crime on its own. Somewhat later, however, Ukrainian officials said that Russian investigators had signaled a readiness to cooperate.
Three years ago this month Yushchenko was rushed to a private clinic in Austria in grave condition. He had to spend several weeks there at the height of a presidential election campaign that he eventually won. Doctors found that Yushchenko had been poisoned with dioxin, and a criminal case was launched almost immediately. Yushchenko had to take painkillers for months after that, and his face still bears scars caused by the poison.
In the presidential election race, Russia openly backed Yushchenko’s rival, Viktor Yanukovych, who was also the choice of the then Ukrainian president, Leonid Kuchma. Yanukovych was prime minister under Kuchma, and he returned to that position last year, when his allies formed a majority in the Ukrainian parliament.
Upon his election as president, Yushchenko pledged to personally supervise the investigation. Since then, the chiefs of the Prosecutor General’s Office — the body that deals with high-profile crime in Ukraine — have been replaced several times. The mystery of Yushchenko’s poisoning, however, has not been resolved to this day, just like another sensational crime — the murder of investigative journalist Georgy Gongadze in 2000.
On September 10, Yushchenko gave a startling interview to several leading European newspapers, including The Times, Le Figaro, and La Repubblica. He said that Russia has failed to provide Ukrainian investigators with samples of dioxin produced in Russia. Yushchenko said that only three laboratories could make the type of dioxin he had been poisoned with. Two laboratories, based in the United States and Great Britain, have provided samples, but the Russian one did not, he said.
The Russian Prosecutor General’s Office also ignored requests to extradite three Ukrainians who are suspected of involvement in the poisoning, Yushchenko said. Nothing changed in this respect, even though he had personally asked President Vladimir Putin for assistance last December, Yushchenko reported. Asked whether the Russian state could possibly have been involved in the attempt on his life, Yushchenko replied, “This was not a private act.”
Yushchenko repeated the same accusations on September 11, speaking at an improvised press conference in the Ukrainian town of Dnipropetrovsk. “Those three people who are most wanted by the investigation are currently in Russia,” he insisted. A former Ukrainian ambassador to Russia, Volodymyr Kryzhanivsky, opined in an interview with Channel 5 that Yushchenko must have had serious reasons to say what he said, as the accusations he leveled against Russia were quite grave.
Chernomyrdin’s reaction was very emotional. “Why suddenly such serious accusations?” he wondered. “Why should we investigate it? Settle it on your own. Someone always hinders you,” he told a group of Ukrainian journalists in Kyiv. A high-placed source at the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry told Kommersant Ukraina that Chernomyrdin “should be punished for his arrogance” by the Kremlin or even replaced. Yushchenko’s secretariat accused Chernomyrdin of incompetence. “The Ukrainian president believes that Mr. Chernomyrdin’s statement was his own opinion, not reflecting the official position of the Russian Federation,” the deputy head of the secretariat, Oleksandr Chaly, said on September 12.
Chaly, who supervises foreign policy and relations with Russia in particular in Yushchenko’s team, otherwise sounded conciliatory. He announced that, following Yushchenko’s statements, Russia had promised to facilitate the investigation, and that a joint Ukrainian-Russian group of investigators would soon start to work in Russia. Chaly also said that Yushchenko’s statements were not aimed to accuse anybody, but they were rather aimed to draw attention to a problem in bilateral relations. Yushchenko achieved this aim, Chaly noted.
Kommersant-Ukraina reported, quoting a source close to the investigation, that the three individuals who Yushchenko wants extradited from Russia are a former deputy chief of the Security Service of Ukraine, Oleksandr Satsiuk, and two former aides to Satsiuk. Yushchenko insists that he was poisoned on September 5, 2004, during a dinner at Satsiuk’s dacha. Satsiuk flatly denied his involvement on several occasions in the past, and his lawyer told Kommersant-Ukraina that, as far as he knew, there had been no legal claims against Satsiuk.
The same newspaper reported, quoting Deputy Prosecutor General Mykola Holomsha, that the head of the group of Ukrainian investigators studying the case was replaced on September 10. The new head, Halyna Klymovych, previously dealt with a Ukrainian criminal gang that, as former interior minister Yuriy Lutsenko once suggested, could be somehow involved in Yushchenko’s poisoning.
(UNIAN, The Times, September 11; Channel 5, Rosbalt, September 11, 12; Kommersant Ukraina, September 11, 13)