Poisoning, 'Dead Souls' Mar Election

A live televised presidential debate might seem like a good sign of a thriving democracy; an alleged attempt by supporters of one candidate to poison the other does not.

Nor do veiled (and open) threats to factory directors and university administrators that they had better deliver the vote from their workers, staff and students, or face government control of all nationwide television and efforts to limit Internet access.

Yet international observers -- including current and former members of the U.S. Congress -- say all those things have been going on in the current presidential campaign in Ukraine, one of the few nations that has joined with the United States in contributing troops to the war in Iraq.

Among the other alleged violations was the discovery on voter registries of names of thousands of long-deceased people -- referred to as "dead souls," in reference to the classic novel by Ukrainian author Nikolai Gogol.

"It was the dirtiest [presidential campaign] in Ukraine's history," Taras Kuzio, a visiting professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, told members of Congress at a hearing this week on the elections.

The election drama comes to a head Sunday, when voters decide who should be the next president -- current prime minister Viktor Yanukovych, or Viktor Yushchenko, the former head of the country's central bank and also a former prime minister.

It's an election that most Western observers have described in terms of its geopolitical significance, but Ukrainian critics of the country's current leadership say the issue is more fundamental: whether genuine democracy can survive in the former Soviet republic.

Yanukovych and Yushchenko were the leading vote-getters in the election on Oct. 31, but since neither received more than 50 percent -- Yushchenko got 39.87 percent of the vote, Yanukovych 39.32 percent -- the two entered a runoff, to be held Sunday.

Turnout in the election was nearly 75 percent, which international monitors praised as a positive sign for the development of democracy in Ukraine, but the conduct of the campaign and the polling was harshly criticized.

What stands out among the smear tactics, the control of media and attempts to manipulate voters was the apparent poisoning of Yushchenko on Sept. 6. The candidate was flown to Vienna, Austria, for emergency medical treatment of what his senior aide said was poisoning from "chemical substances which are not normally found in food products.''

''There is enough evidence to say that it was an attempt on the life of presidential candidate Yushchenko,'' Oleksandr Zinchenko said at a news conference last month.

'The Timing Is Suspicious'

Exactly what made Yushchenko sick still has not been determined. A Ukrainian parliamentary investigation concluded this week he had not been poisoned, but a Ukrainian doctor who treated him said only a chemical toxin could have caused the combination of symptoms he saw in the candidate -- eroded stomach and intestine linings, along with paralyzed facial nerves.

"The timing is extremely suspicious," Kuzio told the congressional committee. "And this was, I think, a reflection, a knee-jerk reaction of panic on the part of the authorities that by the third month of the election campaign they had hoped that Yanukovych would be, because of the dirty tactics used, in the lead. In fact, the gap in favor of Yushchenko was growing."

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