TIME exclusive on Ukraine's Presidential Drama

12 December 2004 |

The Dirtiest Trick

It's official: opposition leader Yushchenko was poisoned in Ukraine's rigged election. Can he win this time?


The faces of great leaders are weathered by the years, absorbing and reflecting the pain of their people. Viktor Yushchenko, the opposition leader running for President of Ukraine, hasn't had a chance to demonstrate greatness, but almost overnight his handsome face turned into a gray, pitted, suppurating mask — a road map to his anguished and divided country. Now doctors have confirmed the cause of that sudden transformation. "There is no doubt about the fact that Mr. Yushchenko's disease is caused by poisoning and that dioxin is one of the agents," said Dr. Michael Zimpfer, director of Vienna's Rudolfinerhaus clinic, where Yushchenko has been treated off and on since he fell grievously ill Sept. 5. "We have identified the cause. We suspect involvement of a third party."

Yushchenko has no doubt about who that party is. He blames unnamed agents of the Ukrainian government (see interview), the same government that allowed rampant ballot stuffing to throw the Nov. 21 runoff election to Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych — Yushchenko's opponent and President Leonid Kuchma's handpicked successor. Two weeks ago, Ukraine's Supreme Court voided that result and called a new vote for Dec. 26. Since then Yushchenko has continued to gain strength — he says he'll take 60% of the vote — while Yanukovych mutters about a "soft coup d'état," and Kuchma keeps searching for a way out.

The political stakes are extremely high — a nation's fate is at stake — but Zimpfer's announcement on Saturday proved that for Yushchenko, the personal stakes may be even higher. The amount of toxin in his bloodstream is so great that tests could not measure it. Had the dose been any larger, he would likely be dead. And though he is recovering — his intense back pain subsiding, liver function returning, energy rebounding — his long-term prospects are bleak.

"I don't want to scare him or his family," Zimpfer told TIME, "but there will be
health problems."

Dioxins are a family of toxic chemicals produced in some manufacturing and as an ingredient in weapons of war. One well-known dioxin is the active ingredient in Agent Orange, the infamous defoliant used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War, which was linked to high rates of lymphoma, soft-tissue sarcomas and cancer of the lung and prostate. People poisoned by dioxins released during industrial accidents, such as the 1976 explosion at a chemical plant in Seveso, Italy, developed the skin disease chloracne, which has ravaged Yushchenko's face and also causes severe joint pain and fatigue. The condition can take years to improve. "There is an increased risk of cancer and other conditions," Professor John Henry, former head of the U.K.'s National Poisons Service, told Nature magazine last month.

While deliberate poisoning hasn't been proven, it isn't unknown in Russia and its former satellites. In Chechnya in March 2002, a rebel commander named Khattab died after handling a letter coated with an unidentified poison; the Russian foreign-intelligence service fsb claimed credit. In July 2003, Russian investigative journalist Yuri Shchekochikin died from a sudden, agonizing disease whose symptoms included blistering; doctors blamed an allergic reaction. In Yushchenko's case, forensic scientists will now try to determine when and how he was poisoned, though fingering a culprit may be next to impossible.

The poisoning has already given him martyrlike status among his supporters, but it also raises questions about whether his health will allow him to serve with sustained vigor. Though he insists it will, those kinds of doubts are dangerous in an unstable environment such as Ukraine.

For weeks, Yushchenko has been sustained by adrenalin and the certainty of making history. "During these 17 days we have built a new country," he told a jubilant crowd in Kiev's Independence Square last Wednesday. Hours before, the Ukrainian parliament, with the backing of Kuchma, had passed a package of electoral and constitutional reforms that boosted Yushchenko's chances in the Dec. 26 vote. "We'll remember [these days,]" Yushchenko predicted, "as the best in our lives."

The struggle isn't over — and Yushchenko knows his life expectancy may be diminished — but he has reason for optimism. He is feeling better, and the electoral reforms met his key demand: reducing the number of absentee ballots from 4% to 0.5% of the electorate, overhauling the Central Electoral Commission, and firing its disgraced chair. The opposition agreed that the President would no longer have the power to appoint his Cabinet, though he retains the right to nominate such key posts as Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and Defense Minister.

Few doubt that Yushchenko will have the votes to prevail, but he still needs to get people to the polls. So he urged the activists in Independence Square to begin working on the campaign, and the crowd thinned out last week. But a hardy band remains, and they say they're staying put until Yushchenko becomes President. Some of the makeshift shelters that popped up in late November have been replaced by large, army-issue tents, and Independence Square even has its own daily newspaper, the Revolution, a leaflet of resistance news.

Yanukovych, the beneficiary of the vote-rigging, broke with his patron Kuchma and denounced the reform package; even some Yushchenko allies were against it. Yulia Timoshenko, a radical opposition leader, refused to vote on it. "This reform strips the President of powers he needs to deliver on his promises to the people," she fumed.

But Mikhailo Svistovich, an activist with the opposition group Pora, has a more positive view. The electoral reforms are incorporated into the law, he says, while the constitutional changes must be reviewed by the next Parliament — and could be modified. "The point is, we've been fighting for honest elections — and it's honest elections we're getting now," says Svistovich.

In Donetsk in the industrial heartland of the east, some 700 km from Kiev, anger about the election's annulment is still rife. Most people here voted for Yanukovych, and for nine nights running, demonstrators gathered in Lenin Square to denounce "the vile Americans who hired their vile agent Yushchenko to split Ukraine and grab it piecemeal," as one recent speaker put it. Leading eastern politicians are threatening to secede and join Russia if Yushchenko wins. Says Alexander Zats, a member of the Donetsk regional legislature: "Should our legitimate concerns be ignored, the people may take matters into their own hands."

In western Ukraine, Yushchenko's ascendancy has ended the region's traditional separatism. For the first time in the history of Ukraine, says Ihor Derzhko, deputy chair of the regional legislature in Lviv, "the orange revolution has fused us with the rest of the country." Derzhko believes the east's succession threats are a political ploy to wrench concessions from the new government.

Those threats are a powerful weapon for the Kremlin, though for now Russian President Vladimir Putin is talking sweet. On Friday, he told visiting Spanish PM José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero that he "could only be pleased" if Ukraine were to be welcomed into the E.U. "Ukraine's turned out to be Putin's worst failure," says one official in Moscow. If Putin fails to install Yanukovych and thus "loses" Ukraine, the official says, his domestic position will be undercut. "Putin will strike back," he says. "But except for encouraging eastern separatism, he does not have a lever to work."

For now, Putin must wait like everyone else for the outcome of the election. The future will depend on how quickly and thoroughly Yushchenko can flush the toxins out of his system — and whether Ukraine's body politic can do the same.