January 23, 2005: Headlines: COS - Ukraine: Election Observers: The Age: The man who survived Russia's poison chalice

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Ukraine: Peace Corps Ukraine : The Peace Corps in the Ukraine: January 23, 2005: Headlines: COS - Ukraine: Election Observers: The Age: The man who survived Russia's poison chalice

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The man who survived Russia's poison chalice

The man who survived Russia's poison chalice

The man who survived Russia's poison chalice

The man who survived Russia's poison chalice
January 23, 2005

Caption: Viktor Yushchenko pictured in July, left, and in October after he had been poisoned. He may owe his life to having vomited on the way home from a dinner party. Photo: AFP

On the day of Viktor Yushchenko's inauguration, Tom Mangold reveals the extraordinary story of his rivals' plot to deny him power.

The big khaki tents are coming down in Independence Square and the braziers are being doused. The Orange Revolutionaries, shrunk from half a million to a few hundred, are going home.

It's inauguration day for new President Viktor Yushchenko, Ukraine's modernist President, a reformer who beat a brutal and medieval assassination attempt by poisoning and an outrageous example of poll rigging last November to become Ukraine's new leader.

And only now are the astonishing truths of Mr Yushchenko's fight for the leadership he had earned being revealed.

An investigation has discovered:

· Britain's germ warfare laboratory in Porton Down has received a biopsy of his skin which shows several poisoning attempts over a four-week period.

· Not one but two deadly poisons have been found in his body.

· Evidence has emerged that seems to link one of Russian President Vladimir Putin's closest staff members to the murder plot.

As Mr Yushchenko's face erupted in a mask of cysts and pustules and even as he fought for his life, his nation came dangerously close to a civil war deliberately engineered by his political enemies.

What stopped a war that could have torn this crucial state bordering western and eastern Europe apart was a series of extraordinary co-ordinated intelligence operations. Those operations involved a breakaway faction of Ukraine's Secret Service, the SBU, Ukraine's military intelligence, with CIA and MI6 officers. They helped by running their own special operations to frustrate corrupt politicians and gangsters who tried to seize power from the newly elected leader.

American and British agents used spy satellites, intercept technology and old-fashioned dirty tricks against President Leonid Kuchma, the departing leader, and his allies and cronies. In the end, Mr Kuchma's power and authority simply hemorrhaged away and he was left unable to exercise his authority.

Mr Yushchenko was given a large final dose of a deadly toxin at a dinner on September 5 organised by the leader of the SBU, General Ihor Smeshko, and his deputy, General Volodymyr Satsyuk, at the latter's Kiev dacha. General Smeshko is believed to have been unaware of the poison plot. Both the cook and the waiter that night have been spirited out of the country by Mr Yushchenko's team and have written admissions of involvement. The amount of poison needed to kill him was the size of a poppy seed.

In an exclusive interview, Professor Mykola Policshuk, the leading authority on the Parliamentary Special Investigation Commission into Mr Yushchenko's poisoning, said: "Two, not one, poisons have been found in his tissue samples. I have not the slightest doubt this was an attempt to murder him. The plan was to give a huge dose at that dinner party so he would die the next day and be buried without the kind of post-mortem examination that would have revealed the dioxin and the other poison - an endo-toxin.

"What may have saved his life was that he vomited on the way home. Either way, it's a miracle he lived."

In another interview, Mr Yushchenko's head of security, Yevhen Chervonenko, revealed how he had been tricked out of attending that dinner.

"I was in the car behind Yushchenko and his state bodyguard when I got a call from the bodyguard telling me I was not required on that night because Yushchenko was going to a secret meeting. Normally, I go everywhere with him and taste his food.

"That night, I was deliberately cut out. When my boss got to the dacha, his bodyguard was ordered to stay in the car. Yushchenko was on his own, he had his own plate of food. If I had been there, this could never have happened."

The man in charge of the commission of investigation, a supporter of rival candidate Victor Yanukovich said: "I don't think Yushchenko was poisoned. I've had no official papers to prove it. Look here, I've got his medical records, he was a sick man. Look at this, he had a lot of herpes zoster - that could have been behind the so-called poisoning."

The plans to prevent the great presidential robbery of Ukraine and protect the people's rightfully elected leader were hatched mid-year. Washington and London, mindful of Mr Kuchma's unappetising record as a corrupt arms dealer and implicated in several murders, gently warned him that if any attempt were made to rig the election, he would find himself disgraced and isolated. To press the point, one of Mr Kuchma's closest business associates suddenly found he could not get a visa to visit the US. The message was deliberate and clear.

Nevertheless, Mr Kuchma and Viktor Medvedchuk, his gatekeeper and chief of staff, became involved in a colossal election fraud, so blatant it was easily spotted by the hundreds of independent election monitors last year.

Mr Putin also took a deep interest in the election in a border nation whose allegiance between the East and the West is almost split. The miners of the East look to Russia. Mr Putin noisily supported their candidate, Mr Yanukovich.

Shortly before Christmas, a courier arrived at the security gate of Ukraine's Channel 5 carrying an anonymous letter written in Russian and a CD. The CD had extracts of intercepted phone conversations between two men, one in Moscow and one in Kiev, talking about the poisoning of Mr Yushchenko. One name mentioned on the CD is that of Gleb Pavlovskiy, a close adviser to President Putin.

I have listened to the CD and I have the transcript. Although its bona fides have yet to be forensically tested, diplomats in Kiev who have heard it and read the transcripts take it seriously.

Volodymyr Ariev, the Channel 5 journalist who has investigated the background, said: "I now know the identity of both men on the intercept. The man in Kiev has admitted to me that the conversation is real and that Moscow was indeed involved in the poisoning, but it doesn't follow that Putin knew or ordered it.

"The recording was done by a rogue faction of the FSB (the replacement to the KGB) who are opposed to Putin and Pavlovskiy."

If the Kremlin did have a hand in the events in Ukraine, as most observers now believe, they unwittingly came across a series of Western intelligence operations that simply outsmarted them.

By November, an important section of the SBU had veered away from Mr Kuchma's tyrannies and believed the future lay with modernist reformers like Mr Yushchenko. Some of this may have been self-serving, but it was realistic and was encouraged by small teams of CIA and MI6 officers sent to back up their respective stations in Kiev for the most important elections in 20 years.

An intelligence net involving Mr Yushchenko's youthful and energetic chief of staff, Oleg Rybachuk, an important faction of the SBU, Ukrainian military intelligence and British and US ambassadors was established. When Mr Rybachuk received SBU warnings of attempts to disrupt the elections or threats to Mr Yushchenko, he reported these to both ambassadors.

Spy satellites maintained round-the-clock vigilance and Western teams inside Ukraine established an enormous communications intercept. Slowly it became clear that a substantial number of Mr Kuchma's players were deserting his team.

Washington and London told Mr Kuchma: "We have no horses in the election race, and we will work with whoever wins - legitimately. But one hint of election fraud or hanky-panky and the West will be tough on you. Your country deserves a fully transparent and democratic poll - at last."

The British warned the much disliked Minister of the Interior, General Mykola Bilokon, that if he misbehaved he would find unusual difficulties in ever getting a visa to visit any West European country or the US.

So monitors were astonished when, despite the gentle warnings, the first election round showed blatant evidence of crude election rigging and fraud. Why did Mr Kuchma still allow it? One observer told me: "Because he had to, he could not have won any other way."

After the fraudulent "win" by Mr Yanukovich, Ukraine began to spiral into conflict. Half a million supporters of Mr Yushchenko and democracy - the Orange Revolutionaries - gathered in Independence Square, thousands camped there. Tents, stoves, food, medical supplies, polystyrene boards for sleeping on in the bitter cold arrived as if my magic. In fact, much had been planned.

Western intelligence officers had one overriding aim - to ensure that the thousands of protesters would not be provoked into violence. They believed that if the young people held, the country would hold.

And indeed, an extraordinary discipline was maintained among the thousands of revolutionaries - much of it exercised by an intriguing activist organisation called PORA. This largely unknown student organisation (there are no members) organised revolutionaries along para-military lines. Sex, drugs and alcohol, but not rock'n'roll were forbidden. Skinhead and secret police provocations were ignored.

Western intelligence officers had recommended constant music and rock concerts to distract the huge crowd, which virtually owned the heart of Kiev. My conversations with PORA leaders reveal that some of them attended a seminar in the Crimea funded by the American Freedom House Foundation - whose chairman is former CIA chief James Woolsey, and USAID, where these techniques were taught.

As support for Mr Yushchenko grew daily, the Yanukovich-Kuchma faction became more desperate. They decided to transport miners from Donetsk on the Russian border and diehard Yanukovich supporters to Kiev to counter-demonstrate the students. The intention was clear - they would spark a conflict and violence and crack down on the peaceful Orange Revolutionaries. The fighting would not just crack skulls, it would lead to a suspension of Parliament, of the elections, a one-year state of emergency and the continued rule of President Kuchma.

Then a curious thing happened. As the miners gathered in Donetsk, free vodka was handed out. They got vodka on their coaches and trains, and they were met in Kiev by trucks loaded with crates of vodka. By the time they had been in Kiev for an hour or so, most were paralytically drunk.

"No, the vodka was not a coincidence," said Alex Kiselev, a close adviser to Yushchenko rival Yanukovich, glumly. "We realised what was going on too late. It wasn't illegal but it was damned clever. It was a trick and we were dumb enough to fall for it, we shot ourselves in the foot with that one. It was all very scripted. There were hundreds of Western agents in Ukraine."

The miners' fiasco increased Mr Kuchma's desperation. The fraudulent election had been exposed, Mr Yushchenko was still alive, although very ill and in considerable pain; the poisoning had become public knowledge, sympathy for the victim had grown, and the fingers pointed openly at Kuchma cronies. Moscow was being dragged in too.

Then on November 28, the Empire struck back.

Around 10pm, the commander of the Minister of the Interior's ample forces, Lieutenant-General Serhiy Popkov, ordered that live ammunition be handed out to 13,000 of his men waiting at bases outside Kiev.

But so penetrated was the ministry that within 45 minutes the phones were ringing in the homes of leading Western diplomats in Kiev. They learned that General Popkov's men were marching towards Independence Square. The crackdown had begun.

Washington alerted its ambassador to satellite imagery, which confirmed his worst fears. Infra-red cameras had picked up the telltale signs of trucks on the move despite the clouds and despite the night.

The ambassador reportedly alerted Secretary of State Colin Powell, who put a call into Mr Kuchma, who refused to take it.

The ambassador called Viktor Pinchuk, the President's powerful son-in-law, and warned him that Mr Kuchma would not be let off the hook by ignoring the call from the Secretary of State.

In urgent meetings and telephone calls, Mr Kuchma, his hard-line Minister of the Interior, General Popkov and Mr Medvedchuk were made painfully aware that a substantial part of the SBU and military intelligence were now out of Government control.

The crunch came when Mr Kuchma learned from his top generals that they could not support an attack on the Orange Revolutionaries and they would protect "the innocent public".

His authority had leaked away. The SBU, the army, the outside world and the people who voted for change had finally defeated one of the most corrupt gangster-states in the world.

First thing tomorrow, Mr Yushchenko's bodyguard will be changed.

Someone from his entourage has had access to his food and this will stop.

His final victory has already brought about a significant reaction. After the Yushchenko victory, Minister of Transport Heorhiy Kirpa blew his brains out in his sauna. He had been associated with allegations of extensive corruption.

Although Mr Yushchenko is anxious to keep Moscow on side, his inauguration has been a triumph for the man, the new machine, for those in the West who believe it helps to give democracy a gentle shove now and then and for 48 million Ukrainians who will begin to taste freedom for the first time.

- Mail on Sunday

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Story Source: The Age

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