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Interviews : Viktor Yushchenko

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Viktor Andriyovych Yushchenko is a Ukrainian economist and politician. He served as President of Ukraine from 2005 to 2010. Yushchenko was born in 1954 in Khoruzhivka, Ukraine. Both his parents were teachers.

Educated as an economist, Yushchenko worked in banking and finance for much of his career. After Ukrainian independence was restored in 1991, he became chairman of the National Bank of Ukraine from 1993 to 1999. President Leonid Kuchma appointed Yushchenko prime minister. Yushchenko served in that post from 1999 to 2001. Freedom House and other watchdog groups noted a marked deterioration in civil liberties and human rights under President Kuchma, including restrictions on the media, government efforts to undermine the political opposition, political violence and even murder.

Yushchenko became active in electoral politics, winning a seat in Ukraine’s parliament in 2002. That same year, he became leader of the Our Ukraine political coalition, the leading bloc of the democratic opposition to Kuchma.

In 2004, Yushchenko launched his campaign for president, quickly becoming the leading opposition candidate. Yushchenko faced formidable odds, with little access to the media. In September 2004, Yushchenko became seriously ill with what was later diagnosed as dioxin poisoning. Though gravely wounded, Yushchenko continued his political campaign. In the October 31, 2004 first round of elections, he narrowly edged Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. Since neither Yanukovych nor Yushchenko won 50 percent of the vote, they met in a runoff election on November 21. Irregularities and fraud were widespread and the government proclaimed Yanukovych the winner. Public outrage led to the nonviolent demonstrations and protests of the Orange Revolution. After several weeks of protests, the government acceded to demands for a new round of elections. On December 26, 2004, Viktor Yushchenko defeated Viktor Yanukovych to become president of Ukraine.

As president, Yushchenko sought to improve Ukraine’s economy and democratic institutions. He worked to strengthen ties with the European Union and NATO. Throughout his presidency, Yushchenko was challenged by political infighting and fractious coalition governments. He unsuccessfully sought reelection in 2010, but lost to his 2004 rival, Viktor Yanukovych.

Since completing his term, Viktor Yushchenko has remained active in public affairs and politics. He currently serves as the founder and head of the Viktor Yushchenko Institute in Kyiv. 

I would like to start with saying that during the 2004 [presidential] election campaign, that poisoning was not the first attempt to remove me from the election campaign. The very first attempt was when my car, which I was driving, had been attacked by a large cargo truck. That had happened in the south of Ukraine; and I saw the attack as a warning.

Later, as I went on with my campaign, there were several occasions when car bombs were positioned near my collegues and me. Criminal cases were opened, based on that, and in each case a legal investigation was carried out. And, so to speak, the attempt to poison me in September 2004 could be seen as the final item on that list. As you remember, that was, in fact, the peak of the election campaign when literally days or a couple of weeks could decide the winner or loser.

I was invited to attend a meeting with representatives of Ukrainian special agencies – security agencies of Ukraine. That was Sunday [September 5, 2004]. After a large rally on Sunday, which I finished at about 6 p.m.

Many times I had categorically refused to attend the meeting. However, there were certain people who believed that I have to attend the meeting, because that was, perhaps, the one and only channel of communication with authorities. President [Leonid] Kuchma did not like communicating with the opposition; there were neither public nor private channels for such a communication. And due to that, to submit, so to speak, demands or warnings to the authorities had been possible only by the way of contact with representatives of the highest rank in the security agencies of Ukraine.

I would like to repeat: I was not a supporter of conducting this September 5 meeting, but I was persuaded; and around 10 – 10:30 p.m. I went to the meeting; the meeting was conducted for several hours in suburbs of the city of Kyiv.

There was some food was served and there was a lot of talking; mainly, as usual, on the electoral process, the situation with the elections, and whether the authorities will have enough courage and political will to provide honest elections.

The meeting was over, I think, around 2:00 a.m. or, perhaps, later. Towards the end of meeting I felt, as it seemed at first, some slight pain, which at the time I did not pay much attention to, and I thought that it is easier just to get home because I am so tired already.

Then, when I was already driving in the car and there were still about 12 – 15 kilometers to cover, or around 20 – 30 minutes of city driving, I again started to feel a pain, which is hard to describe now because it cannot be compaired to anything. The pain, which I never felt before, and I had no medicine.

And I had just one thought – to come home; and there my wife will give me some medicine. To be honest, I always was skeptical towards medicine and medications. I never liked taking medications – maybe that I inherited from my father.

Meanwhile, I was impatiently driving without a word, and now I remember only the most severe pain and one wish – to reach home soon.

When I walked inside, I kissed my wife, and she asked me: “Hey Viktor, why do you have this metallic smell?” My family seldom uses words like this – that is why it seemed so unusual. I thought: Now I will take some medicine, and everything will return to normal.

At first my family started treating me – they gave me some painkillers, but nothing helped. Then they gave me another dose. Again, painkillers did not help at all. It is 5:00 – 6:00 a.m. already. We called an ambulance. They came and I was examined for several hours, including tests and treatment. However, there is no progress at all.

I cannot sleep. I cannot sit.

It seems now that in the afternoon of that day I gave American journalists – I gave an interview. But then I was already on my knees, because I could not sit or stand in front of our coffee table. But I yet had an inexplicable hope, that it will go away, that it is just an episode.

At that time we did not have any suspicion. However, the pain was such that I was inclined to think of the possibility. And because several days of treatment by Ukrainian medical professionals – everyone, from the doctors of the highest level to specialists – did not give us any results, a group of my friends insisted, pushed, and recommended I seek treatment abroad, and we had to fly immediately.

Of course, I understood that I am going to take a break from the election campaign, but I did not know for how long. I would say, a diagnostic process started in an Austrian clinic; neither the first, nor the second, nor the third day brought any answers.

My body started to swell, my face started to swell, I became un-filmable – with such an unusual appearance that I could not carry on with the campaign.

Then I started to feel a facial palsy. My speech started to become garbled, and I could not pronounce some sounds. Due to that, I had to manipulate [my face] with my fingers to produce something that could resemble a word. Then my hair started to fall out.

My food was limited. I remember that the richest food they were giving me was a baked apple. With nothing on the side. I was allowed to eat nothing. I lost, I think, about 10 – 11 kilograms of body weight. However, that pretty radical treatment, when I had several IVs daily, saved my life, perhaps.

However, that treatment, perhaps, gave me the chance to survive at the most critical time. Then lab tests began, and one of the laboratories found the presence of dioxin in my blood; at levels 50,000 times higher than normal range. [Dioxins are highly toxic chemical compounds, generated in certain manufacturing and chemical processes.] And from there began that story, when 4 more laboratories around the world were officially added to the diagnostic process and finally reached a conclusion.

However, after the diagnostic stage was over, another problem had emerged – how to fight dioxin. In fact, my case of dioxin poisoning was unique.

And they, I would say, in several months, having applied results of their studies on molecular and genetic level, have developed their feasible, as they put it, treatment protocol; and from that time till today, I would say, I have been using that protocol prescribed at that time by University Clinic of Geneva led by Professor Saurat.

In the first 2 years I had 26 surgeries. More or less, a surgery was performed either every week or every other week. Of course, that made my life even more difficult. My political life, as well as my family life. But it was the price to be paid, the price I paid for my campaign. The price I paid for the movement, the price I paid for the choice I made. I think I wasn’t the only one paying this high price. My entire nation felt deeply for me.

Millions of people in churches prayed for my health and for my survival. I am grateful to everyone for being there for me – to my family, to the community, and to many other people who did not even know me. I would like to repeat: That was the most dangerous time of my life and the most difficult time. 

Ukraine is the second largest country in Europe, bordering Russia, Belarus, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Moldova, the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. It has an estimated population of nearly 45 million people, of which 78 percent are ethnic Ukrainians, 17 percent are ethnic Russians, and the rest from other ethnic groups.

Ukrainian independence was reestablished in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the 9th century, Kievan Rus was established as the first eastern Slavic state on what is now Ukrainian territory. For much of its history, Ukraine was subjugated to neighboring powers such as Russia, Poland, Lithuania, and Austria-Hungary. Briefly independent after World War I, Ukraine was incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1922. After World War II, Soviet Ukraine’s territory was enlarged to include former Polish, Romanian and Czechoslovak territory in the west and the mostly ethnic-Russian Crimean peninsula on the Black Sea.

Ukraine’s rich soil made it the breadbasket of the USSR. Today, it is the world’s third largest exporter of grain. Industrialization took place during the Soviet era, along with collectivization of agriculture. During the 1930s, the collectivization of agriculture and displacement of farmers to the cities to work in heavy industry led to a catastrophic famine, known to Ukrainians as the Holodomor. As many as 10 million people perished. Under the rule of dictator Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Union aimed to eliminate Ukraine’s national identity. Artists and intellectuals and those believed to be Ukrainian nationalists were eliminated by the security agencies. Nearly 700,000 people are believed to have perished during these purges.

During World War II, Ukraine was the scene of heavy fighting between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Five to eight million Ukrainians died during the war, including the majority of Ukraine’s Jewish population. After the war, the economy grew rapidly, with agriculture and heavy industry driving growth. Ukraine was second only to Russia in power and influence within the Soviet Union. In 1986, Ukraine’s Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was the scene of the worst nuclear accident in history.

In 1990, as the Soviet Union began to disintegrate, Ukraine adopted a declaration of sovereignty, a prelude to the 1991 declaration of full independence. The first decade of independence saw Ukraine’s economy collapse, with massive unemployment and hyperinflation. The country’s road to democracy was troubled, with President Leonid Kuchma’s new constitution centralizing power in the presidency. Corruption, electoral fraud, and domination of the economy by Ukrainian and Russian oligarchs led to political stagnation. Freedom House and other watchdog groups noted a marked deterioration in civil liberties and human rights under President Kuchma, including restrictions on the media, government efforts to undermine the political opposition, political violence and even murder.

Ukrainian politics has been highly contentious and essentially divided into two large political blocs. The first group, led by Viktor Yanukovych and the Party of Regions, was seen as advocating closer ties with Russia. The second group, led by Viktor Yushchenko and the Our Ukraine coalition, was seen as favoring democratic reforms and preferring a closer relationship with the European Union and NATO. 

More from Viktor Yushchenko

Viktor Yushchenko_The Attempted Murder of Viktor Yushchenko President Yushchenko describes how he was poisoned during the campaign. Viktor Yushchenko: Running as an Underdog President Yushchenko discusses the unfair tactics used against him in 2004. Viktor Yushchenko: The First Round of the Elections Viktor Yushchenko wins a narrow victory in the first round of balloting. More + Viktor Yushchenko: A Nonviolent Revolution President Yushchenko explains why he refused pressure to take violent action in the Orange Revolution. Viktor Yushchenko: Message to Dissidents President Yushchenko shares a message for dissidents. Viktor Yushchenko: The Second Round of the Elections President Yushchenko talks about fraud and the public reaction to the second round of elections. Viktor Yushchenko: The Challenges of Building Democracy in Ukraine "For a certain part of our society, democracy was perceived as a weakness." Viktor Yushchenko_The Orange Revolution How peaceful protests brought about democratic change in Ukraine.