Dead End
State Secret Service chief Ihor Smeshko (right), his deputy Volodymyr Satsyuk and presidential candidate Victor Yushchenko (left) during their dinner party at Satsyuk’s dacha outside Kyiv on Sept. 6, 2004. Yushchenko fell ill afterwards. Courtesy

Dead End

October 29 at 22:33 | Peter Byrne and Olexiy Stepura
Five years on, the poisoning case of Victor Yushshcneko remains unsolved and has more questions than ever.

The poisoning of Victor Yushchenko, the case which shocked the world and rallied Ukrainian voters behind his successful presidential bid in 2004, remains unsolved as the tarnished victim runs for re-election.

Now, five years later, both the president’s political future and the chances of the case being solved are dim.

His fate is complicated, many say, by the president’s penchant for distorting facts for political advantage. The continuing mystery surrounding his ingestion of a nearly lethal dose of dioxin is emblematic of the incumbent’s incompetence, insecurity and ambition.

The alleged assassination attempt in September 2004 turned around what had been a lackluster presidential campaign and set the stage for the democratic Orange Revolution. But nothing is expected to save Yushchenko this time around. Polls show that voters in the Jan. 17 election are overwhelmingly eager to write his political obituary because of unkept promises of the Orange Revolution.

The case – as it will until it is solved – periodically makes news. Most recently, the victim again accused Russia of harboring three individuals he suspects of perpetrating the callous act. Official investigators, meanwhile, remained clueless. They have not identified a motive for the crime or suspects.

An open case

General Prosecutor Oleksandr Medvedko has declared officially that Yushchenko’s poisoning case remains open. “The investigation continues. There are no people we can press charges against,” Medvedko said on Oct. 9. On Sept. 25, Medvedko said investigators have concluded that Yushchenko was deliberately poisoned. "There was an attempt on his life using dioxin," Medvedko said.

Yushchenko, meanwhile, is as certain about who poisoned him as investigators are uncertain.

Most recently, in an interview broadcast on Sept. 28 on Ukrainian television channel 1+1, Yushchenko told millions of Ukrainians that Moscow is obstructing the probe by not turning over the host, waiter and chef of a dinner party he had attended five years ago.

Three weeks earlier, the president told the German magazine Der Spiegel that the investigation was completed.

“For four years, people who directly organized my poisoning have been in Moscow. I have addressed Russia’s president three times and asked them to be questioned by Ukrainian investigators in our embassy in Moscow. The suspects include a former deputy secret service head, the waiter, and the cook. All these people are in Moscow.”

Host, waiter, cook

The men Yushchenko fingered are Volodymyr Satsyuk, the former deputy chief of Ukraine’s State Security Service (known as the SBU), possibly his associate Taras Zalesskiy and Sukhrab Fakhriev, an Uzbek chef.

On the evening of Sept. 5, 2004, they served Yushchenko, David Zhvania, Yushchenko’s election campaign financial manager, and Ihor Smeshko, SBU chief at the time, at Satsyuk’s country house outside of Kyiv.

Yushchenko had reportedly been drinking heavily during campaign appearances and meetings that day, including shots of moonshine prepared by a villager in Chernihiv Oblast. During the late-night supper at Satsyuk’s house, which lasted from 10:30 p.m. through 3:00 a.m., the men ate crayfish and pilaf, washed down with beer, vodka, cognac and whisky.

Yushchenko complained the next morning of an acute migraine and back pain. He spent the next four days sick at home in his Kyiv apartment. He was seen by doctors, but refused to be hospitalized in Ukraine. Late on Sept. 9, he flew to the Vienna-based Rudolfinerhaus Clinic, which promptly diagnosed him with acute pancreatitis.

Oleksandr Zinchenko, Yushchenko’s head of election campaign, flew to Vienna to confer with clinic doctors. On Sept. 17, he dropped a political bombshell announcing that Yushchenko had been poisoned. He based the allegation on the conclusions of Mykola Korpan, Yushchenko’s attending physician at the clinic, who at the time did not rule out poisoning.

Doctors struggled for the next several months to diagnose and treat the presidential candidate’s sickness. Blood and other samples had been taken from Yushchenko at that point, according to Korpan.

Yushchenko has repeatedly made clear that he suspects Satsyuk, Zalesskiy and Fakhriev, the cook, of being directly involved in his poisoning. All three men remained in Ukraine after Yushchenko was inaugurated president on Jan. 23, 2005. All three men were questioned and released.

Despite Yushchenko’s repeated claims that the men are evading justice by hiding out in Russia, the Kyiv Post found Fakhriev, who said that he and Mohammad Berdiev helped prepare the dinner that night. He said that Berdiev returned home to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, after being questioned by prosecutors and released.

Fakhriev said in a telephone interview that he currently provides kaliyan (hookah) water pipe services to cafes and restaurants in Kyiv. Fakhriev said repeatedly that he had been questioned by investigators and released. “I did nothing wrong,” he said each time. “I did not leave Ukraine.”

Satsyuk, Zalesskiy and Fakhriev are not official suspects in the official investigation, as Yushchenko has alleged, according to Prosecutor General Medvedko. They, essentially, have the same status in the case as Kateryna Chumachenko, Yushchenko’s wife, the general prosecutor conceeded.

Satsyuk, who had worked with Yushchenko during the late 1990s at Ukraina Bank, relocated to Russia in June 2005 after state prosecutors opened a criminal case against him for alleged counterfeiting, forgery and fraud. He is currently wanted by Interpol for these crimes – not in connection with poisoning Yushchenko.

Zalesskiy left Ukraine on Nov. 15, 2006, the day after Yushchenko said during a press conference that “there is enough information to handcuff the perpetrators of the crime and put them in jail.” Zalesskiy has his own Website, Ukraina Kriminalnaya, through which he has repeatedly denied poisoning Yushchenko.

Authorities are to blame

After three days of intensive therapy at Rudolfinerhaus Clinic, Yushchenko felt better, well enough to leave the clinic on Sept. 13 and walk around Vienna. The disfiguring paralysis of a facial nerve occurred the next night.

Korpan wrote: “The overall negative condition of the patient was no doubt caused by a severe virus or, perhaps, by chemical substances not ordinarily found in food products.”

Days later, upon his return to Kyiv, Yushchenko declared at a rally that he was the victim of a deliberate murder attempt and accused “the current authorities” of committing the crime.

“The murderers are the authorities,” presidential candidate Yushchenko declared on Sept. 21 in parliament

The presidential candidate returned to Rudolfinerhaus Clinic on Sept. 30 exhibiting an unexplainable acne-like skin condition.

Before the repeat run-off presidential election, Rudolfinerhaus Clinic on Dec. 12 announced officially that Yushchenko had been poisoned with dioxin.

President-elect Yushchenko on Dec. 29, 2004, said in a televised interview that he had already determined “for himself” who was behind the poisoning. The number of perpetrators was small, he said, “three or four people,” adding that law-enforcement authorities were faced with the “simple task” of identifying the suspects, a process that would take “several weeks.”

But several weeks dragged on and turned into five years.

Forensic facts

One of Yushchenko’s attending physicians, Oliver Sorg, had said in July 2005 that with the passing of time “it will become more difficult to determine whether Yushchenko was poisoned 10 months ago, and even more difficult to determine the week that the poison was introduced to his system.”

But it wasn’t until late 2005 – more than a year after the alleged poisoning – that Mykola Poludenniy, former deputy head of the presidential secretariat and the president’s legal representative, conducted the first official international forensic examination within the framework of the criminal case. German, Belgian and British laboratories confirmed dioxin poisoning for the first time in the history of the case.

The results suggested that Yushchenko had imbibed not less than two milligrams of dioxin, a dose no larger than a dozen grains of salt. Poison experts said the dioxin entered Yushchenko’s body from two hours to 48 hours before he fell ill.

Former SBU chief Ihor Smeshko told the Kyiv Post on Oct. 15: “I cannot believe that it is possible to determine to the day when Yushchenko was poisoned based on the results of only one official medical expertise made a year later. I insist that the SBU had nothing to do with Yushchenko’s health in 2004. My conscience is clear.”

The case took a bizarre twist after parliamentary elections in 2007 when David Zhvania (until then considered Yushchenko’s close friend) declared that Yushchenko had not been poisoned deliberately after all.

“It was ordinary food poisoning. That’s what the doctors said,” Zhvania told BBC. Asked to explain laboratory reports of Yushchenko’s blood samples confirming dioxin in his system, Zhvania said, “All these analyses are complete fakes.”

Yushchenko responded that Zhvania had “taken part and planned” his poisoning in 2004.

Korpan, from the Rudolfinerhaus Clinic, told the Kyiv Post on Oct. 9 that there is no rational explanation for what happened to Yushchenko’s face except for chloracne, a symptom of dioxin poisoning. “The evidence does not support any other version,” he said.

Poludenniy, former deputy head of the Presidential Secretariat, declined comment when asked by the Kyiv Post whether foreign poison experts were informed how much alcohol Yushchenko consumed the night of the dinner.

An Oct. 9 brief in a medical journal, The Lancet, says the identification of the poison in Yushchenko’s body – pure dioxin – was delayed until late December 2004, because the presence of dioxin is not routinely investigated in in a patient with signs of acute poisoning. The study found that Yushchenko has to date expelled about 95 percent of the dioxin from his body.

Ukrainian dioxin experts from the Kyiv-based Medved Institute of Eco-Hygiene and Toxiology, in late 2007 published an article, titled, “Dioxins: threat of misuse in possible acts of chemical terrorism.” The brief said: “Acute dioxin poisoning of humans is characterized by a latent period lasting one to four weeks after the poison is introduced to the human body.”

Dead end

Several versions of the alleged crime have been batted about over the past five years, all of them based on the motives of possible perpetrators. No hard evidence has been produced to back up any of them.

Satsyuk’s lawyer, Victor Petrunenko, told the Kyiv Post on Oct. 5 that responding to Yushchenko’s most recent allegations would be a waste of time. “No comment. My client is a witness in the criminal investigation, as are many others. He is not a suspect,” Petrunenko said. Satsyuk’s dacha in early 2005 was inspected closely for traces of dioxin.Nothing was found.

Andrew Wilson, author of “Virtual Politics, Faking Democracy in the Post-Soviet World,” said the poisoning case is important “because we know less today than we did five years ago.” He referred to the case as “Ukraine’s mysteriously uninvestigated poisoning.”

Volodymyr Fesenko, chairman of Penta Center for Applied Political Studies, said prosecutors have not even established motive for committing the crime. “By pointing the finger at Russia now, the incumbent appears to be looking for sympathy abroad and for support in the upcoming election,” Fesenko said. “It’s always easier to blame someone else for your own failure.”

“Victor Yushchenko has not delivered on most of the promises he made five years ago. He is now hanging out the prospect of solving Ukraine’s most resonant crimes as a last-ditch attempt by him to save face,” said Taras Berezovets, a political analyst at the Kyiv-based Polittech think tank. “It will not work.”