KGB legacy of poison politics

Doctors confirmed that dioxin poisoned Ukraine's Yushchenko.

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The weekend confirmation that Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko was poisoned left some analysts of Russian politics shrugging: What would an election be in Russia, or any former Soviet republic, without some KGB-style episode against a key opponent?

The scandal-ridden Ukrainian election fits a historical - as well as latter-day - pattern of ruthless tactics brought to bear against political opponents. In 2002, for example, a warlord in Chechnya was killed by a poisoned letter.

"This case of poisoning Yushchenko is not an isolated one at all," says Andrei Piontkovsky, head of the Center for Strategic Studies in Moscow. "This practice was routine for the KGB in Soviet times, and I don't think their successors have higher moral standards."

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Mr. Yushchenko Sunday checked out of a clinic in Vienna after doctors confirmed that dioxin poisoning was responsible for severe facial scarring and skin discoloration.

Yushchenko has long claimed that the condition was the result of an assassination attempt.

Ukrainian authorities on Saturday reopened a criminal investigation into the poisoning, which had been closed by the former prosecutor Gennady Vasilyev for lack of evidence.

Although dioxins are a common industrial pollutant, doctors said Yushchenko had 1,000 times the normal concentration in his system, leading to conclusions of foul play.

"We suspect involvement of an external party, but we cannot answer as to who cooked what or who was with him when he ate," Dr. Michael Zimpfer told reporters in Vienna Saturday.

Whether by coincidence or not, Mr. Yushchenko fell ill soon after dining on Sept. 5 with the head of Ukraine's SBU secret service, Gen. Igor Smeshko. Officials and Ukraine's state-run media had scoffed at Yushchenko's claims of poisoning, pointing instead to his love of sushi and high living as the probable cause.

Speculation Sunday centered on who may have been responsible - cronies of outgoing President Leonid Kuchma, or even Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), successor to the KGB. Both were seen as eager to engineer victory for Moscow's clear choice in the election, prime minister Viktor Yanukovich.

Sunday, Yushchenko said he was "very happy to be alive in this world today."

Dioxins are byproduct chemicals created by factories that use chlorine, such as those that make pesticide and plastics. A stronger dose could have been lethal to the large Ukrainian politician. Doctors say he may need two years or more to fully recover.

It was not clear how the incident would affect the vote, which Yushchenko is expected to win. But the West-leaning candidate said the political transformation that he has helped engineer has had no parallel in Ukraine for a century. "I think it would be appropriate to compare this to the fall of the Soviet Union or the fall of the Berlin Wall," Yushchenko said.

Whoever wins the Dec. 26 Ukraine election will inherit an ossified political system that is still locked in a Soviet-style political environment and has often used violence to deal with opponents.

Among the most bizarre cases is the disappearance of muckraking online editor Georgiy Gongadze in September 2000. A month later, a headless body was found on the outskirts of Kiev. Audiotapes of conversation from the president's office - taped secretly by Mr. Kuchma's bodyguard - later surfaced and appeared to link Mr. Kuchma to the killing. The bodyguard later was given asylum in the US.

The standard of intrigue, however, has been set in nearby Russia - a tradition that stretches back at least as far as Rasputin. His assassins in 1916 first tried unsuccessfully to poison the czar's court confidant with cyanide-laced pastries and wine, before using bullets, knives, and finally drowning.

When it comes to modern Russian politics, the presidential vote earlier this year provided its own spectacle. Ivan Rybkin, a former speaker of the Duma and top Kremlin official under Boris Yeltsin who ran against President Vladimir Putin, disappeared for five days - about a month before the vote.

When Mr. Rybkin resurfaced, he first told a garbled tale about meeting friends in Kiev; later in London, he claimed that he was abducted by the FSB, drugged, and forced to make a compromising video.

More recently two different journalists covering the Beslan hostage crisis in September say they were drugged - one on a plane, another during an FSB interrogation - to prevent their coverage of the story. Medical tests later confirmed one of the cases.

Friends and family of Yury Shchekochikin, a Duma deputy and deputy editor of the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta in Moscow, believe that his death after an unexplained skin rash in July 2003 - while he was investigating a company owned by former KGB top brass - may have been due to dioxin poisoning.

And in early 2002, the FSB celebrated its killing of a Saudi-born warlord in Chechnya, called Khattab, who had once fought the Soviets in Afghanistan. In the mid-1990s, Khattab became a key Chechen link to foreign funding and Islamist militants. He received the letter from the FSB through intermediaries.

"It is technically quite possible to be killed by poison put on paper," Oleg Kalugin, a cold war defector who now lives in America, told the London Sunday Times in 2002. "I recall in the old Soviet days the KGB planned to assassinate some people by putting poisonous gel on the door handle of a car."

In 1978, a Bulgarian agent famously used a spring-loaded umbrella to fire a deadly ricin pellet into Soviet defector Georgi Markov at a London bus stop.

Further back in history, Stalin's secret police staged a car crash in 1948, to kill Solomon Mikhoels, a Soviet Yiddish actor and theater director, and head of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee during World War II. Another famous case was that of the well-known pro-Bolshevik novelist Maxim Gorky, who died in 1936. The secret police chief at the time confessed to poisoning him at his trial two years later.

Even Boris Yeltsin, who later became president, once claimed in 1990 that he had been grabbed while walking and thrown off a bridge into the Moscow River. He showed up at a friend's place bruised, in tattered clothes, and soaking wet.

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