An Old-Fashioned Poisoning

Editorial

Los Angeles Times

December 14, 2004

The Iron Curtain is no more, or so we thought until the news that Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western presidential candidate in the former Soviet republic of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin, possibly by Ukraine's own security services.

This brings to mind a flurry of associations, from campy James Bond movies to John le Carre thrillers, not to mention actual history. Stalinist regimes and poison have a long connection. Bulgarian agents, most famously, used a poisoned umbrella in 1978 to kill dissident Georgi Markov in London. In Russia, the czarist advisor Rasputin was allegedly poisoned in 1916, and the Kremlin has its own long history of political and royal assassinations, though some of them occurred by suffocation. Past critics of Ukrainian President Leonid D. Kuchma also have died under questionable circumstances.

The good news for Yushchenko, despite his suddenly pockmarked features and tales of excruciating pain, is that he survived the attempt and now seems poised to win the Dec. 26 reprise of his runoff against Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich.

Indeed, Ukraine already seems to be a far different country than it was on Nov. 21, the day of the tainted runoff election. Faced with large domestic protests, international condemnation and a Supreme Court decision against the rigged vote, Kuchma succumbed to calls for a new vote and to a package of reforms that promise to make Ukraine a more democratic nation.

Russia's President Vladimir V. Putin is the big loser in all this, having campaigned for Yanukovich. Putin has freely meddled in the affairs of Russia's "near abroad," the former Soviet republics. For Putin, being rebuffed by Ukrainians yearning for closer ties with the European Union is especially difficult, given Kiev's status as the cradle of modern Russian civilization.

The West has often been too deferential to Putin and too timid in openly supporting democratic voices in the region. The Bush administration in particular has sought to placate the Kremlin in exchange for its support against Islamist terrorism, which is how Putin describes Russia's brutal civil conflict with the separatist region of Chechnya. It's no accident that Putin practically endorsed President Bush on the eve of the U.S. election.

But Ukraine's saga, much like the fall of the Iron Curtain, which once stood well to the west of Ukraine, is a reminder that a society spontaneously demanding to decide its own future cannot always be poisoned back into submission. The trick for Bush in his second term will be to find a way to maintain constructive ties with Putin but not at the price of abandoning clamor for more democracy in the former Soviet Union.