Yushchenko: 'Live And Carry On'

Ukraine's President Talks Exclusively With <B>Christiane Amanpour</B>

It's a plot straight out of spy novel. A presidential candidate in the heart of Europe is stricken by a mystery poison that disfigures his face and nearly kills him.

But this is no fiction. It's the story of how Ukraine's new president, Viktor Yushchenko, triumphed over his country's authoritarian rulers, while leading a massive people-power revolution.

For the first time since his inauguration, Yushchenko tells his incredible story to CNN's Christiane Amanpour, on assignment for 60 Minutes.

In Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, the walls of St. Michael's Monastery of the Golden Domes resonate with a painful history. Demolished by Stalin's henchmen, this 12th century cathedral has been rebuilt from scratch, a task almost as monumental as the one faced by Yushchenko, Ukraine's new president.

"It's a huge responsibility," says Yushchenko. "Ukrainians have dreamt of being free for centuries. So no one expected we'd come so close to dictatorship."

And that might have happened if the plot to poison Yushchenko had succeeded. It has completely disfigured him.

"You challenged people about your face," says Amanpour. "You said that your face is everything that is wrong with Ukraine. What do you mean by that?"

"People cry when they see my face, but my country has also been disfigured," says Yushchenko. "Now, we'll bring both back to health."

How does he deal with his disfigurement now? "This Yushchenko," he says, "I'm still not used to."

Six months ago, when he began his campaign to unseat Ukraine's authoritarian rulers, did he have any idea that it would be so difficult and that he would go through such personal hardship?

"I know what kind of country I live in, and who's in charge of the government," says Yushchenko. "But I didn't think they'd be cynical enough to poison me."

Ignored by Ukraine's highly controlled media, Yushchenko's grassroots campaign against government corruption was somehow starting to catch on. He barnstormed the country with his American-born wife, Katherine, often at his side.

"He was a great threat to the old system, where there was a great deal of corruption, where people were making millions, if not billions," says Katherine, whose parents were Ukrainian immigrants to Chicago.

She was used to straddling two worlds, but nothing prepared her for Ukraine's poisoned politics.

"The whole purpose of what they did, I believe now, was to keep him out of the campaign, to knock him out," says Katherine. "They tried to destroy him politically, and I always feared that when they were not successful, they would try to then do something physically."

She also feared that something would happen to her family. And then, suddenly it did. On Sept. 6, Yushchenko fell critically ill, and no one in Ukraine could explain why.

"It was a very, very, very difficult situation," says Katherine. "Many of the doctors told us that they were, that they just had never experienced somebody having so much pain for so many unknown reasons."

He had symptoms like a swollen pancreas, stomach ulcers, and a crippling backache. His family rushed him to a clinic in Austria, but Dr. Michael Zimpfer was just as baffled by his seemingly unrelated symptoms.

"That made us suspicious," says Zimpfer. "We inform the patient that we never saw an identical clinical picture before, and we suspect, don't know yet, but we suspect that there might be an act of bio-terrorism or poisoning behind that."

The doctors struggled to save his life, but they couldn't keep him in bed for long. Eight days later, Yushchenko insisted on going home with tubes dripping painkillers inserted right into his spine.

Did Katherine ever try to dissuade him? "He knew he had to go forward and there was no turning back," she says.

Three days after returning to Kiev, Yushchenko faced down his political enemies in parliament. They had mockingly attributed his mystery illness to bad sushi or excessive drinking. But no could explain why his face was so horribly swollen.

"Look at my face, this is a fraction of the problems I've had," said Yushchenko in parliament. "This isn't a problem of cuisine; we're talking about the Ukrainian political kitchen, where assassinations can be ordered. You know very well who the killer is. The government is the killer."

But the government brushed off these allegations, until the hard proof came in. Three months after Yushchenko first fell ill, a lab in Amsterdam reported dioxin levels in his blood that was 6,000 times above normal.

"This is the highest we've ever seen, and one of the highest ever reported," says Bram Brouwer, who runs the lab. "And it fits very well with the symptoms that are now observed, with Mr. Yushchenko's face, the chloracne."

The evidence that Yushchenko was poisoned was now irrefutable. Dioxin, one of the world's most toxic chemicals, was responsible for the scarring of his face and threatened his future with cancer. But the question remained. Who carried out this crime?

The attempt to eliminate Yushchenko is as Byzantine as Kiev's skyline, filled with plots and potential villains. One theory is that he was poisoned by Ukraine's security services, the old KGB, because just before he fell so gravely ill, he had been invited to dinner by the security chiefs.
Yushchenko and his hosts shared crayfish, salad and a few beers, and ironically they had been meeting to discuss the death threats against him.

Ukraine's security services deny they had anything to do with the poisoning. Their director had in fact been helping the Yushchenko camp.

Does Yushchenko know who did this to him? "I have no doubts this was by my opponents in the government, that's who would benefit the most from my death," says Yushchenko.

But there is still the question of how it was done. One way to solve it is to trace the poison. And some people in Yushchenko's camp think that it came from a Russian chemical weapons lab.

"Dioxin like this is produced in four or five military labs in Russia, America, and a few other countries," says Yushchenko. "Our security services have informed me how this material got into Ukraine, but that evidence is now with our general prosecutor, who eventually must answer this question."

They must also examine another plot on Yushchenko's life. Ukraine's security services say a powerful car bomb, targeting Yushchenko's headquarters, was discovered during the presidential campaign. Two Russian nationals are being interrogated.

Spokesmen for the Russian security services would not comment on either case, but President Vladimir Putin's role during the election remains controversial. He openly backed the handpicked successor of the previous regime, coming to Kiev twice to lend his support.

"President Putin supported your opponent during the election. How do you reconcile with him," asks Amanpour.

"I'll give him my hand, and l say, 'Vladimir Vladimirovich, let's forget the past and think of the future,'" says Yushchenko.

This week he did just that, greeting Putin on his first trip abroad after his inauguration.

"Everyone now understands only Ukrainians have the right to choose Ukraine's president," says Yushchenko. "Our president is not elected in Moscow, or anywhere else."

That became apparent when the previous regime tried to steal the presidential election through massive voting fraud. It triggered what became known as the Orange Revolution, a spontaneous revolt of outraged citizens who for weeks besieged their own capital

Democracy was finally taking root in a country where greed and corruption had become the rule of law.

When government troops lined up for what could have ended in an European-style Tiananmen Square, the people's power of persuasion won the battle of the streets and Yushchenko and all those who had believed in him triumph in a bloodless revolution.

"The millions who came out on the street showed that they don't want tyranny," says Yushchenko. "They want freedom."

But what a price for freedom he paid. "Everyone has paid a price," says Yushchenko.

"A lot of people asked me, 'How did you deal with it,' and my answer was always my husband's alive. My children are alive, I'm alive," says Yushchenko's wife, Katherine. "It was such a small episode in a huge revolution. Generations of Ukrainians, you could say centuries of Ukrainians, have dreamed and have fought, and have died for a chance to be right where we are right now."

"When I heard that millions were praying for me, it went straight to my heart," says Yushchenko. "But I also felt an obligation to live. To die is not very original, but to live and carry on -- that's special."
  • Rebecca Leung

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