Was Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko Poisoned in 2004?

by Roman Kupchinsky

One of the great unsolved mysteries of the 2004 Ukrainian presidential election is the alleged dioxin poisoning of Viktor Yushchenko on September 5, 2004.

The perpetrators have never been caught and while Yushchenko has hinted a number of times that the plot to poison him was concocted in Russia, no concrete evidence supporting this theory has ever been offered.

Moreover, the inability of Ukrainian law enforcement agencies to solve the crime has bred numerous conspiracy theories in Ukraine, the latest of which appeared in the Ukrainian newspaper Segodnya on September 18, 2009.

The paper published a sensational report stating that Larysa Cherednichenko, the head of the department for supervision over investigations into criminal cases of the Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s Office, claimed that high-ranking officials from the presidential secretariat and family members of Yushchenko falsified evidence in his poisoning case.

“As [Davyd] Zhvaniya [member of the Our Ukraine – People’s Self-Defense faction of the Ukrainian parliament, who has more than once denied Yushchenko’s poisoning] said, the victim had blood samples taken from him in September-October 2004 with help from an Austrian doctor. However, the samples were not studied in Ukraine or another European country. They were secretly taken to the U.S., where they were enriched with dioxin and were later taken to the UK with help from the U.S. special services.

“Those blood samples were sent by the administration of the Austrian clinic Rudolfinerhous to expert establishments, which found dioxin,” Segodnya quoted Cherednichenko as saying.

In December 2004 Yushchenko said that he would soon reveal proof that his opponents had tried to assassinate him.

The proof never materialized, but this did not prevent Yushchenko from claiming that the case was well on its way to being solved.

Two years later, speaking to journalists in Baku on September 8, 2006, the Ukrainian president said the investigation into the alleged poisoning in September 2004 was “one step away from the active phase of solving this case.”

Yushchenko’s statement in 2006 came as Ukraine’s prosecutor-general, Oleksandr Medvedko, announced that investigators had determined the time, place, and circumstances in which the poisoning attempt took place.

Austrian doctors responsible for examining Yushchenko several months after the poison was reportedly administered said the Ukrainian politician had ingested a concentrated dose of dioxin.

The powerful toxin caused bloating and pockmarks on Yushchenko’s face, giving his skin a greenish hue and adding a macabre note to a tumultuous political season culminating in the mass Orange Revolution protests in December 2004.

Prosecutor-General Medvedko, confirming earlier allegations, said tests on the dioxins found in Yushchenko’s blood showed they were highly purified and manufactured in either Russia, the United States, or Great Britain.

When he was rushed four days later to Vienna’s Rudolfinerhaus clinic, his liver, pancreas, and intestines were swollen, and he was barely able to walk.

Doctors were initially baffled. But Yushchenko’s supporters already had a theory: that the candidate had been poisoned during a dinner September 5 with Ihor Smeshko, the head of Ukraine’s Security Service, at the summer home of Smeshko’s deputy, Volodymyr Satsiuk.

Later that month, many were surprised to read a Rudolfinerhaus press release stating doctors did not believe Yushchenko had been poisoned.

But several days later, officials at the Vienna clinic publicly objected, insisting the press release was a forgery — an episode that soon conjured up images of a Soviet-style disinformation campaign.

Satsiuk’s case raises further questions. In 2008 Moscow refused to extradite the former Ukrainian security chief.

The press-service of Russia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office reported that Satsyuk has Russian citizenship, and therefore cannot be extradited.

According to the Podrobnosti internet newspaper, the Ukrainian office of Interpol was not aware that Satsyuk had been re-nationalized in Russia. “As of today, we did not receive any such information,” said Vasiliy Nevolya, a senior figure in the National Interpol office.

Was Yushchenko poisoned and by whom? Given the byzantine nature of Ukrainian politics, and the cut-throat reality of Ukrainian-Russian relations, the answer might continue to evade even the best investigators for years to come.