The poisoning of the Ukrainian opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko in 2004 was a shocking act. Images of his face, disfigured by lesions and blisters, were seen across the world. And the fact that the attempted assassination had taken place while he was running in an election in a European state added to the sense of astonishment.
Ukraine has experienced damaging turbulence since that attack 11 years ago. The vicious civil war and the annexation of Crimea by the Kremlin has left a society fractured, on the frontline of a new Cold War between Russia and the West.
The scars Mr Yushchenko bears have, to an extent, faded. But he believes that the threat to those who hold his pro-Western views has not. Other leaders too can become targets, he believes. “Every politician in this country and neighbouring countries who turns towards the West is facing that kind of danger,” he said. “My poisoning took place because I had started taking steps towards the European Union. We have a neighbour who does not want this to happen.”
He added: “What happened to me was a matter of surprise because it took place when things were meant to be peaceful. But we are in such a risky situation now that violent acts directed against individuals may still cause outrage, but should not come as a total surprise.”
After his poisoning, Mr Yushchenko went on to win the presidential election. His chief opponent, Viktor Yanukovych, denied allegations that he was responsible for the administration of TCDD, the most potent dioxin and contaminant in Agent Orange, which resulted in Mr Yushchenko having to campaign with his face half paralysed and a catheter inserted into his back to inject painkillers into his spine.
The original vote had been won by Mr Yanukovych, but this was mired in widespread allegations of fraud and after 13 days of street protests – the “Orange Revolution” – the Supreme Court ordered a run-off, with Mr Yushchenko emerging victorious by 52 per cent to 44 per cent.
Mr Yanukovych won the next election in 2010, but his presidency came to a dramatic end with the Maidan uprising last year. He now lives in Russia, while he is wanted in his home country for alleged crimes committed in the suppression of the protests.
Mr Yushchenko obviously takes care of his appearance. He spoke to The Independent at his office in Kiev wearing an elegantly cut blazer and lilac tie and pocket handkerchief. The former President said he preferred not to say openly who would want to silence those who try to bring their country into the West.
He added: “There are no detailed plans on how to deal with Russia, so Russia gets more and more bold. There are sanctions in place, of course; but they may be eased, or even dropped in the next six months. It will be a big mistake if that happens: just look at the way the Russians are behaving in Syria.”
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Mr Yushchenko is not involved in politics at the moment, focusing instead on business ventures in China and the Far East. He is, however, in regular contact with senior politicians. He is the godfather to the children of the current President. Petro Poroshenko, who he believes is “right for our country; he has brought the kind of politics we want”. He said: “The only problem is that the state of the economy means he can’t deliver all that he is trying to do. But who else is there who would be right for Ukraine at the moment?”
One person who would not be right at all, he wanted to stress, was Yulia Tymoshenko, who seeks the presidency and whose Fatherland party is doing well at the polls. The two have a long history of political enmity. “For the last 12 to 14 years Tymoshenko has been the main source of destabilisation in the country. She will continue to be supplied with the tools she needs to continue doing this by Putin,” he said.
Nor was he impressed by talk of Mikheil Saakashvili taking a more prominent role in Ukrainian politics. The former President of Georgia was appointed governor of Odessa by Mr Poroshenko and his popularity is high following a policy of ending corruption and inefficiency. Mr Yushchenko said: “We know that he enjoys the support of Mr Poroshenko. But he will find it difficult because he is a foreigner. It will be a hazard having a foreigner like him wielding too much power. It will not be good for our society.”
No one was ever charged over the attack on Mr Yushchenko in September 2004. Initially his political opponents claimed that what happened was the result of food poisoning due to an indulgence in bad sushi, washed down with an excess of cognac. One rival declared that he personally stuck to safer patriotic fare rather than risky foreign cuisine.
Mr Yushchenko had dinner with the head of the Ukrainian security service (SBU), Ihor Smeshko, and his deputy Volodymyr Satsuik just before he fell ill. He later told parliament: “I fell foul of Ukraine’s political cuisine, which it seems can kill.” Blood samples taken at the time by Ukrainian doctors mysteriously disappeared. In September 2009 Ukrainian prosecutors said that they had been unable to obtain testimony for an investigation from Mr Satsuik who had gone to Moscow and had been given Russian citizenship which protected him from extradition.
Despite the violent divisions and his own experience, Mr Yushchenko maintained that Ukraine can have a peaceful and united future as long as dialogue continues. “Yanukovych carried out fraud in the election. But we must not forget that millions did actually vote for him. His views are still held by many here,” he said. “I do not agree with these views, but these people are fellow Ukrainians and we must keep on talking to them. Putin will exploit the situation if we don’t and we know how good he is at exploiting situations.”
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