The Ukranian leader in front of a picture of his former, unblemished face. Credit: Graeme Robertson/Getty Images
Under the radar, in early December, tests came back from three undisclosed labs in Belgium, Britain and Germany, confirming what many scientists already suspected: In September, 2004, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko had been poisoned. His blood samples did indeed contain an abnormally high level of dioxin, 1,000 times the accepted level. One year later, Yushchenko’s face—with its strong jaw and movie-star features, perfect politician material—remains badly pockmarked.
Dioxins are normal byproducts of industry and waste incineration. Most people have been exposed to them in small doses. For example, anyone who eats animal fat has a little dioxin in their bodies. But, in higher quantities, the chemicals can cause cancer, organ disease, miscarriages, menstrual ailments, low birth weight, abnormal hair growth or a severe form of acne called chloracne. This same skin condition plagued the locals exposed to a chemical spill in Seveso, Italy, in 1976 and now Yushchenko suffers the same fate.
Most experts believe Yushchenko ingested the dioxin on the night of September 5, 2004, in the midst of a neck-and-neck presidential race, after dining with General Igor Smeshko, the former head of Ukrainian intelligence. Shortly after dinner, Yushchenko complained of sickness and vomited. Bad sushi, the state-run media claimed at the time.
No one has been charged with the president’s poisoning and, like most criminal cases in the former Soviet Union, it is unlikely to be solved. But that has not stopped scientists in the Ukraine from assembling their own version of events.
In the days following the dinner, Yushchenko fell gravely ill. He underwent three weeks of detoxification treatment while being sequestered at an Austrian clinic. Doctors diagnosed him with acute pancreatitis and symptoms of edema. But, two weeks later, his face developed pockmarks.
“We knew right away he was poisoned because his skin symptom was very symptomatic of this kind of dioxin,” said Mykola Prodanchuk, one of Ukraine’s top toxicologists and the director of the Kiev-based Institute of Eco-Hygiene and Toxicology.
Tasteless but highly toxic, the dioxin Yushchenko ingested was administered in a dose probably less than 1 mg. A drop in a bowl of soup would have gone undetected, said Prodanchuk. Yushchenko was served a rather large dose, roughly a quarter of the lethal quantity for rhesus monkeys. Once ingested, the dioxin—a fat-soluble chemical—moves from the blood to fatty tissues. The body then tries to eliminate the dioxin through its sebaceous glands, which are what causes skin to grow oily or pimply. Half a dose of dioxin gets eliminated every few years but never completely rids itself, Prodanchuk said.
The dioxin found in Yushchenko’s blood—pure 2,3,7,8-TCDD—is “the most potent of all the dioxins,” said Daniel Hryhorczuk, professor of environmental and occupational health sciences at the University of Illinois. “I doubt someone could have been sophisticated enough to give a dose in the range where you’d be guaranteed to maim and not kill,” added Hryhorczuk, implying that the intent was most likely Yushchenko’s death, not disfigurement. Hryhorczuk said the dioxin was probably not a homegrown concoction made in Ukraine, but rather, the work of a foreign laboratory. “To make a compound this pure requires a lot of sophistication.”
The early suspect: Russian intelligence. After all, it is no secret that Yushchenko, a pro-Western reformer, was not the Kremlin’s preferred candidate in 2004. Moreover, Russia’s KGB has a long history of failed assassination attempts of political figures, stretching as far back as the time of Rasputin, Tsarina Alexsandra’s mystic who was nearly poisoned in 1916 by pastries laced with cyanide.
During the 69 years of Soviet rule, the KGB took poison assassination plots to a new level of sophistication. In 1957, for instance, a Soviet agent assassinated Ukrainian émigré leader Lev Rebet in Munich using a cyanide gas pistol. In 1978, a Bulgarian agent at a London bus stop used an umbrella loaded with ricin pellets to inject a Soviet defector with poison. But dioxin poisoning is un-chartered territory, even for Russian spooks.
If this poisoning was an attempt on Yushchenko’s life, why did the assailant not use a stronger substance like strychnine? After all, dioxin is not commonly used as a tool for assassination and the substance can be detected in the blood for years after initial contact.
“Dioxin poisoning is not a good way to [kill someone],” said Hryhorczuk. “No human we know of has died from acute dioxin poisoning.” [doesn’t this quote contradict his earlier one?]
Scientists say the Ukrainian president survived the attempt on his life for two main reasons: his immediate therapy and his strong health attributed in part to the fact that Yushchenko doesn’t drink or smoke. While his presidential campaign was set back by his absence, he nevertheless drew international sympathy and went on to win the election in December after Ukrainians poured into the streets. It prompted a runoff and resulted in what became known as the Orange Revolution, named after the color of Yushchenko’s political party.
A full investigation into the poisoning did not begin for another year. Despite the fact that Ukrainian law requires that tests be conducted within the country, under supervision by Ukrainian investigators, the work of examining Yushchenko’s blood samples was outsourced to European laboratories. Scientists say Ukraine’s labs lacked high-resolution chromatographs and spectrometers to detect traces of dioxin in the blood with specific sensitivity, not to mention its labs were not certified by the World Health Organization to conduct dioxin tests.
Investigators remain baffled by the case. Scientists are still studying Yushchenko’s symptoms in a search for answers. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s president seems to have accepted his fate—and disfigured face—as the price for trying to reform his country’s rough-edged politics, a system yet to shed its Soviet past.
Lionel Beehner is a staff writer with the Council on Foreign Relations’ website.
Originally published February 8, 2006