Sunday, February 27, 2005

Yushchenko Poisoning Answers Remain Elusive

KIEV, Ukraine -- Five months after Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko first showed signs of dioxin poisoning, there are still more questions than answers about how he was poisoned and who was behind it.

It isn't even clear if the intent was to kill him or to weaken him so he would drop out of the race for the presidency.

Whatever the intent, it failed. Yushchenko swept to power after one election was declared fraudulent and he clearly won the second.

His skin pocked with dioxin-induced acne and him suffering pain so great he required infusions of drugs directly into his spine, Yushchenko took on almost messianic status.

"In a sense, he became a living martyr, a walking resurrection story," said Andriy Ermolaev, a political analyst at Kiev's Center for Social Studies.

Last week, Yushchenko said at a news conference that he was aware of tapes that might tie the poisoning to the Russian Federal Security Service, successor to the Soviet KGB.

The tapes reportedly contain the voices of Russian FSS employees talking about the poisoning and implicating a Russian official, Gleb Pavlovskiy. The tapes were given to a Ukrainian TV station in December and handed over to investigators Tuesday.

Pavlovskiy has denied any involvement. But the idea that the Russians might somehow have harmed Yushchenko appeals to many here who thought Russian President Vladimir Putin was too quick to congratulate Yushchenko's opponent, Viktor Yanukovych, on his "victory" after the first, fraudulent election.

Yushchenko said he would make no judgment on the reports of Russian involvement until the Ukrainian prosecutor completes his investigation.

The investigation has centered on a Sept. 5 dinner Yushchenko shared with three other men at a home outside the capital. The details of that dinner were revealed by Volodymyr Boyko, a reporter who in September broke the news that poisoning might be behind Yushchenko's deterioration.

According to Boyko, the dinner's host was Volodymyr Satsyuk, the No. 2 official in Ukraine's secret service. His boss, Ihor Smeshko, was also there, as were Yushchenko and David Zhvania, Yushchenko's close friend and one of the country's richest men.

According to an official report, Yushchenko was stricken with nausea the next morning. At first he tried traditional Ukrainian home remedies. But his symptoms worsened and by 7 p.m., suspecting food poisoning, he sought a doctor's care.

On Sept. 10, deathly ill, he flew to Austria for treatment. When he returned to Ukraine eight days later, chloracne scars had disfigured his face.

The dinner would have been an ideal setting for administering the dioxin, said Max Daunderer, a Munich toxicologist. The amount of dioxin needed for Yushchenko's level of poisoning would be significantly smaller than a grain of salt.

"And alcohol speeds up and intensifies the uptake of poisons," he said.

Others are less certain. Dr. Arnold Schecter, one of the world's leading dioxin experts at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Dallas, said he believes the symptoms surfaced too quickly for the dinner to have been the source of the poison.

"In medicine, there's always the exception, but dioxin usually takes at least three days to produce symptoms," he said. "Frankly, the timing of getting sick the next day would point away from the dinner."

Satsyuk denies that the poisoning could have taken place at his home. "We ate from the same platters, drank from the same bottles," he said. None of the other men fell ill.

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