Two weeks ago, leading opposition presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko stopped his election tour of Ukrainian regions and "disappeared" from the political arena in Ukraine. The first news as to what happened to the Our Ukraine leader came a week later, when his personal website (http://www.yuschenko.com.ua/) announced on 13 September that Yushchenko had recovered from a bout of "acute poisoning" and was getting ready to continue his election campaign trips. Yushchenko's spokeswoman, Iryna Herashchenko, was quoted as saying that Yushchenko was in good physical condition.
Oleksandr Zinchenko, Yushchenko's campaign manager, caused a sensation on 17 September by announcing that Yushchenko's recent bout of poisoning may have resulted from an intentional attempt on his life. Zinchenko quoted doctors from a clinic in Vienna, who examined Yushchenko, as saying that Yushchenko's ailment was caused by "a viral infection and chemical substances that usually are not contained in foodstuffs." Since the examination in Vienna was made six days after the poisoning, Zinchenko added, it proved impossible for the doctors to identify what "chemical substances" might have been involved.
Ukrainian independent media have since somewhat elucidated the situation around Yushchenko's unexpected and mysterious ailment. Yushchenko fell ill on 6 September, suffering from an acute headache and pains in his abdomen, chest, and face the following day. His facial nerves were paralyzed. Ukrainian doctors diagnosed his illness as gastric flu and received relevant treatment. Yushchenko's physical condition, however, deteriorated, and his election staff decided to send him for an examination to the Rudolferhaus clinic in Vienna, where he arrived on the evening of 9 September. Austrian doctors diagnosed Yushchenko's illness as acute pancreatitis -- inflammation of the gland that secretes digestive enzymes as well as the hormones insulin and glucagon to the stomach -- and concluded that it could not be caused by food poisoning alone. Ukrainian surgeon Mykola Korpan, who works in Rudolferhaus, told the "Ukrayinska pravda" website on 20 September that Yushchenko's condition had been "stabilized" by Rudolferhaus doctors. Korpan added that the poisoning posed a direct danger to Yushchenko's life.
Yushchenko returned to Kyiv on 18 September to take part in a 70,000-strong rally organized by his election staff under the motto "Come and Listen." The Kyiv rally was broadcast by Channel 5, the only television channel in Ukraine backing Yushchenko's presidential bid, and transmitted live to big screens in a number of Ukrainian cities where Yushchenko's supporters gathered for local "Come and Listen" meetings. People were reportedly shocked or at least embarrassed to see Yushchenko looking so deathly ill, with a visibly swollen and half-paralyzed face, who had difficulties reading his text and frequently resorted to using his handkerchief because of excessive salivation. What was planned as a triumphant return of Yushchenko to the election campaign, apparently turned into a grave advertising miscalculation. Rumors, kindled by the government-controlled media, have begun to circulate in Ukraine to the effect that Yushchenko has suffered an apoplectic stroke or a heart attack that may have lasting consequences for his physical and mental abilities. Instead of a feeling of compassion for Yushchenko as a potential victim of poisoning by his political adversaries, people may have developed the suspicion that their candidate is inadequate for the post he aspires to.
According to some commentators, Yushchenko's election staff made a serious mistake by publicizing the allegations about a deliberate attempt on his life too late, just a day before the rally in Kyiv. Besides, instead of clearly delineating who might be interested in liquidating Yushchenko, his campaign manager, Zinchenko, resorted to publicizing physiological aspects of the candidate's illness, thus baffling rather than enlightening ordinary voters. What's more, Zinchenko supplied the government-controlled media with ammunition to present Yushchenko's bout of poisoning as a farcical incident rather than a potentially lethal one.
A majority of Ukrainians remained ignorant about Yushchenko's real condition on 18 September, when state-run and oligarchic media began to issue sarcastic reports suggesting that Yushchenko suffered from poisoning from some exotic food or just alcohol. "I would recommend checking food before consumption in order to avoid stomach problems," Vasyl Baziv, deputy head of the Ukrainian presidential administration, told journalists on 17 September, thus establishing the tone of official comments on Yushchenko's condition. "Let Zinchenko taste the food first, before Yushchenko begins to eat it.... That's what rulers did in the Middle Ages," Baziv added.
It is perhaps characteristic of the atmosphere of the presidential election campaign in Ukraine that none of the 25 presidential candidates, Yushchenko's rivals, has expressed public sympathy with Yushchenko or wished him a quick recovery. Instead, the general mood among Yushchenko's adversaries seems to have been defined by marginal presidential candidate Yuriy Zbitnev, who publicly advised that Yushchenko should request that a paramedic give him an enema in order to overcome his health problems.
Yushchenko's staff apparently understood its mistake -- and potential damaging effects of this mistake to Yushchenko's standing as a presidential candidate -- on 21 September. On this day Our Ukraine's lawmakers demanded that the Verkhovna Rada form a special commission to investigate the reasons behind Yushchenko's health crisis. More than 400 lawmakers in the 450-seat legislature supported this measure. And the message that Yushchenko sent to his electorate on 21 September was unambiguously clear. "I am not a gourmand relishing in Eastern or Western cuisines," Yushchenko said in the Verkhovna Rada. "I eat the same borsch, potatoes, and pork fat as you, as 47 million people in Ukraine.... What happened to me is not linked to a food problem. What happened to me is a problem linked to the political regime in Ukraine."
On the other hand, the Prosecutor-General's Office on 20 September begun a separate inquiry into the public allegations that Yushchenko's recent bout of poisoning may have been caused by a deliberate attempt on his life. For the next several weeks, the problem of Yushchenko's poisoning is set to dominate the presidential election agenda in Ukraine. It remains to be seen who will win this propagandistic duel -- Yushchenko or his main rival, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych.
It is already evident, however, that Yushchenko has irrevocably lost two weeks of campaigning, which may gravely impair his presidential bid. Because of the blockade of positive information about Yushchenko in state-controlled and oligarchic media, his election campaign was built on regional tours and direct meetings with voters. The schedule of these meetings has now been seriously disorganized, and Yushchenko's election staff seems presently to be at a loss how to proceed. Moreover, it is not clear whether Yushchenko's health will allow him to continue his election trips. The doctors said they have "stabilized" his condition, but they did not say that they have ensured his recovery.