How far will the old order in Ukraine go to safeguard its privileges? News that opposition presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko was poisoned suggests that it is desperate indeed. Three months after the alleged poisoning, questions continue to mount about how Mr. Yushchenko ingested what should have been a fatal dose of dioxin and who was responsible. The incident underlines the stakes in Ukraine’s presidential ballot, which will be repeated in the days ahead after the original outcome was contested.
On Sept. 5, Mr. Yushchenko and his campaign manager dined with the head of Ukraine’s security service. Within hours, he became gravely ill, but prompt treatment saved his life. While poison was suspected — he accused the government of masterminding the act to prevent him from campaigning — proof was not available until this month when doctors confirmed that Mr. Yushchenko had dioxin levels in his blood 6,000 times higher than normal.
With this evidence, Mr. Yushchenko has been able to force the security services to reopen an investigation into the incident, but it will not go forward until after the Dec. 26 ballot.
The list of suspects is long; topping it are his Sept. 5 dinner hosts. They have denied any connection with the attempt, arguing, among other things, that it would make no sense for them to do anything so blatant as to poison a candidate in their own home. Moreover, specialists note that dioxin poisoning usually takes two weeks to have an effect; the onset of symptoms so soon after the meal is unlikely. It suggests that the poisoning occurred some time before.
The Sept. 5 meal itself was intended to discuss death threats received by Mr. Yushchenko. The stakes in the Ukrainian election are extremely high. Mr. Yushchenko and his opponent, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, have vastly different views of their country’s future; the challenger wants to align Ukraine more closely with the West, while the prime minister would deepen its integration with Russia. Those decisions will have profound implications for business in Ukraine. In other words, there are many people with a reason to take action against Mr. Yushchenko.
The possibility of Russian involvement gives the tale a twist. The Soviet Union’s security services used poison against “enemies.” In one notorious case, a Bulgarian dissident in London was killed when injected with ricin, another deadly poison, with the tip of an umbrella supplied by the KGB. There have been other suspected cases since the collapse of the Soviet Union. One, a few months ago, suggests that poison is still a weapon to be used against those who cross Moscow.
While Mr. Yushchenko has survived the attack, it has left him disfigured. Once noted for his movie star looks, the candidate’s face is now pockmarked, discolored and swollen. He is racked with pain. While expressing sympathy, Mr. Yanukovych now argues that his opponent is too weak and in too much pain to govern, a charge Mr. Yushchenko denies.
Whoever wins the Dec. 26 ballot will need all his strength. Ukraine was divided before the Nov. 21 election, and the events that followed that vote have deepened the divisions. Mr. Yanukovych won that vote, but the results were condemned internationally and hundreds of thousands of Mr. Yushchenko’s supporters took to the streets to demand a new ballot. The country’s Supreme Court agreed. But Mr. Yanukovych has said his supporters might not tolerate defeat, warning that they could take to the streets as well “to prevent a coup.”
Emotions are running high. Last weekend, a religious procession turned violent when supporters of the two men started taunting each other. There have been reports of assaults on each candidate’s supporters and on journalists throughout the country. When the two men squared off in a final televised debate earlier this week, Mr. Yanukovych accused his opponent and outgoing President Leonid Kuchma of selling Ukraine out to foreign interests. He went on to say that foreigners had interfered in the November ballot by funding demonstrations. Finally, he ominously warned that even if Mr. Yushchenko wins the vote “he would be president of only part of Ukraine.”
The heat that has been generated will ensure that this election is closely watched at home and abroad. That is unlikely to ensure that the results are not contested, no matter who wins. Ukraine is torn between the authoritarianism of its past and democratic hopes for the future. It is leaning toward Europe, but it is closely tied to Russia. It is a difficult balancing act — and a potentially deadly one, as Mr. Yushchenko has learned.
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