During the Cold War, the global ‘spy-versus-spy’ atmosphere of rival east-west blocs generated endless assassination plots and political murder stories. One of the most infamous such killings involved a Bulgarian BBC employee, Georgi Markov, allegedly murdered by the Bulgarian Communist secret police on a London street in 1978. Legend has it Markov’s murderer stuck him with an umbrella, the tip of which contained a tiny pellet of the deadly organic poison known as ricin.
A quarter century later, in the former Soviet republic of Ukraine, presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko has alleged that the government tried to poison him during the pre-election period. Poison, he and his supporters say, explains his sudden illness and disfigured appearance in the first week of September, after spending an evening with two Ukrainian intelligence service chiefs. One of Yushchenko’s top lieutenants even accused the government of using ricin. This accusation was soon withdrawn, however, presumably because ricin would almost certainly have killed its victim. The accusers’ poison of choice then became "dioxins," toxins so common they are found in the air we breathe.
Many outside observers believe the assassination plot story precisely because of its geographical context: the former Soviet Union. Few in America could imagine a candidate risking attempted murder of his opponent in the run-up to a U.S. election, but after all, this is a former Soviet country. The Ukrainian government–with the whole world watching–was willing to risk assassinating a high-profile political figure weeks before polling day, or so it seems. Common sense should be the first indicator that the Yushchenko campaign has concocted a tall tale. Yet, even supposing a diabolical government plot to murder Yushchenko were plausible, other factors call the poisoning version of events into question. Most important is the fact that Yushchenko has a long, documented history of serious illnesses, and his latest ailment could well be just the latest installment.
Yushchenko’s medical records show that from 1994 to 2004 he had the following diseases: chronic gastritis, chronic cholecystitis, chronic colitis, chronic gastroduodenitis, infection of the bowels, and Type II diabetes. According to medical experts, this plethora of intestinal problems would have required the patient to adhere to a strict diet, but Yushchenko had a habit of falling off his dietary wagon with unfortunate effects. In September 1996, after a birthday party at which he ate and drank heavily, Yushchenko complained of pains in his right side and a burning mouth. The diagnosis: chronic cholecystitis (inflammation of the gallbladder). Yushchenko’s most recent complaints–nausea, vomiting, headaches, stomach and intestinal pains–indicated he had probably violated his prescribed meal plan yet again.
Few seem to remember that, back in September this year, the clinic that treated Yushchenko (Rudolfinerhaus Clinic in Vienna, Austria, which now publicly supports the dioxin story) labeled the poison rumors "fallacious," diagnosing Yushchenko with severe pancreatitis, severe intestinal ulcers, gastritis, proctitis, peripheral paresis and a viral skin condition. The core diagnosis, pancreatitis (decomposition of the pancreatic gland tissue), is caused by alcohol–particularly in "binge drinking"–65-75% of the time, and the items Yushchenko consumed before his September illness included crabs, watermelon, sushi–and cognac. In a country where hospitality involves endless toasts, Yushchenko’s hosts may have "poisoned" him with nothing more than a liter of Ukrainian spirits. To make matters worse, Yushchenko’s medical records confirmed he had voluntarily refused his doctor-ordered diet even after falling seriously ill. On September 9th he consumed salo (a variety of pork fat popular in Ukraine) with garlic, mare’s milk and mineral water, and the next day he was in a Rudolfinerhaus clinic bed, and soon accusing the "regime" of poisoning him.
Although Yushchenko announced publicly in late September that he had never suffered from chronic illnesses, insisting he had been deliberately poisoned, it was publicly disclosed soon afterwards that Yushchenko had suffered from intestinal ailments for many years. This does not explain his facial appearance but, again, dioxin poisoning is less likely an explanation than alcohol. Yushchenko’s disfigurement closely resembles a form of herpes infection called rosacea. As Dr. Chris Rangel, an internal medicine specialist in Texas, points out: "Rosacea can be explosive, and extremely disfiguring–and it can be triggered by even one alcoholic drink. In five years of work at major inner city hospitals in Manhattan, I saw several such cases." In other words, both rosacea (accounting for Yushchenko’s outward appearance) and pancreatitis (internal symptoms) can be brought on by excessive alcohol consumption.
As human beings, we reflexively tend to sympathize with anyone who has experienced a disfiguring illness. Politicians everywhere, however, know that public disclosure of serious illness can be fatal to an election campaign, and it was only natural for Viktor Yushchenko’s campaign to attempt to cover up his physical problems. In the absence of any proof, we should resist the temptation to allow our natural sympathies to lead us to a conclusion of foul play.
CHAD NAGLE is a lawyer accredited as an election observer in the first two rounds of the Ukrainian presidential campaign He writes from Kiev.