By Myroslav Potapov
A normal and not unprecedented outbreak of flu has added to political tension in Ukraine during the presidential election campaign. The flu outbreak should not be normally a cause for alarm as fewer people had died as of November 1 than by the same date last year. In February 2008 Ukraine was far closer to an epidemic than today.
Why then the exaggerated panic and conspiracy theories about the regional nature of the flu outbreak? Two factors account for this.
Firstly, in February 2008 relations between President Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko were not as strained as they are today. Today, Ukrainian experts and mass media openly talk about Yushchenko’s obsession with Tymoshenko who he attacks on a daily basis and the President intervenes in areas that are constitutionally within the governments area of responsibility.
Yushchenko signed into law social populist legislation that threatens the IMF stand-by agreement and thereby opens up the possibility of Ukraine’s default. At a November 11 meeting with G8 Ambassadors Tymoshenko openly warned about the dangers that lie ahead for Ukraine and in an unprecedented move said she would not implement the populist legislation.
Yushchenko’s obsessive dislike of Tymoshenko has led to a growing number of Ukrainian experts, including Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko, alluding to Yushchenko as a “technical candidate” of Party of Regions leader Viktor Yanukovych whom Yushchenko has never once criticised during the last six months. Lutsenko believes that Yushchenko’s strategy is to undermine Tymoshenko’s election chances, through for example daily criticism of her and the imposition of a state of emergency that would postpone elections.
After Yanukovych is elected President he has promised to disband parliament, hold pre-term elections and establish a new coalition and government. Lutsenko believes that the new government would be headed by Yushchenko.
Secondly, what makes this years flu outbreak different is that it is highly concentrated in Western Ukraine. As of November 2, the eight oblasts of Western Ukraine had over 200,000 cases of flu compared to only 30,000 in central, 6,000 in southern and 10,000 in eastern Ukraine.
Rumors have abounded that this is suspicious and a plot to undermine Tymoshenko’s election campaign as Western Ukraine is the heartland of her support. A small but growing number of western Ukrainian senior medical officers have questioned whether the fact that the outbreak is regionally concentrated means it is of an “organized nature”. Why is swine flu not spreading beyond Western Ukraine they muse?
Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) officers who talked in anonymity to the Jamestown Foundation are also suspicious. An SBU counter-intelligence general was of the opinion that the outbreak had the look of a “spetsoperation”. Although based in Kyiv his colleagues in Western Ukraine were sending him daily reports that made him increasingly suspicious.
The SBU counter-intelligence officer offered to provide testimony from a Ukrainian who lived in the town of Stebnyk in Lviv oblast who allegedly witnessed suspicious individuals that he believed were linked to the flu virus. The Jamestown Foundation will seek to interview him.
A former senior level member of Leonid Kuchma’s presidential administration told Jamestown Foundation that during the Orange Revolution certain SBU officers had approached Kuchma and offered to disperse the Orange Revolution crowds by spreading an undisclosed “chemical agent” among them. Kuchma had turned down the offer because it would have led to a loss of life for which he would have been held responsible (Internal Troops sent on November 28, 2004 to disperse the protestors were given the order by Prime Minister Yanukovych after Kuchma also refused to support this step).
During the 2004 elections and Orange Revolution the SBU was divided into three groups. One worked with the opposition and unofficially taped Yanukovych’s election campaign headquarters. The tapes were transferred to Oleh Rybachuk after Yushchenko was elected (see ‘Yanukovych-Gate Unfolds After Ukrainian Elections’, Eurasian Daily Monitor, vol.1, no.139, December 3, 2004).
A second group stayed neutral and a third remained loyal to Kuchma. The latter group retained links to Russian intelligence and may have been behind Yushchenko’s poisoning that investigators believe was administered at SBU Deputy head Volodymyr Satsyuk’s dacha. Satsyuk fled to Russia after Yushchenko’s election with his SBU files which have been drawn upon by a parliamentary commission controlled by the Party of Regions that recently sought to claim that the poisoning had not taken place and was in fact a “CIA operation”.
Ukrainian media and experts have pointed to the analogy of Russia where the FSB was accused of planting bombs that blew up apartment buildings, terrorist attacks that were then blamed on “Chechen terrorists”. These conspiracy theories are rampant because of the inability to resolve the mysterious 2004 poisoning of then opposition candidate Yushchenko, years of political instability, and Yushchenko’s blatant use of the outbreak to undermine Tymoshenko.
Western Ukrainian medical officers believed that the answer to the question of why the outbreak was highly concentrated lies less in the medical than in the political sphere. This is an illusion to the calls by the secretary of the National Security and Defence Council and Presidential Secretariat for the introduction of a state of emergency that would postpone elections until local elections in May. According to Segodnya (November 10), Ihor Tarasiuk, the head of Yushchenko’s campaign, successfully argued against the step and the decision was postponed.
Such a scenario would severely undermine Tymoshenko’s election campaign, which it would seem is Yushchenko’s only goal.
Myroslav Potapov is a Kyiv-based journalist