Neighborhood perils

December 14, 2004

THE AFFLICTION that has disfigured Viktor A. Yushchenko, the Ukrainian presidential candidate, calls to mind a similar malady that befell a crusading member of the Russian parliament, Yuri Shchekochikhin, last year. The one significant difference is that Mr. Yushchenko got to a hospital in Vienna, and lived; Mr. Shchekochikhin went into one in Moscow, and died.

Supporters of both men believe they were poisoned by the authorities. Mr. Yushchenko fell ill after having dinner with the head of the Ukrainian KGB; he went through enormous pain, and today his face is bloated and cratered with what Austrian doctors have determined is chloracne, from dioxin ingestion. Mr. Shchekochikhin was rushed to the hospital in the course of an investigation into rumored involvement by the Russian security services in the apartment house bombings that killed 300 people in 1999. Before he died, his skin blistered and began falling off. Russian doctors publicly suggested it was the result of a food allergy.

We bring this up because Mr. Yushchenko's political opponents -- who have the enthusiastic backing of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin -- believe that Ukraine, Russia and neighboring Belarus belong together in a "common space." A hallmark of the sort of common space they have in mind is a disregard for legal niceties.

The idea, for instance, that the Russian federal security service, or FSB, might have played a role in the 1999 bombings was at first too monstrous to believe. But the evidence in hand was troubling. Parliament launched a probe, led by Mr. Shchekochikhin and Sergei Yushenkov, and Mr. Yushenkov was the first to die -- shot dead outside his apartment. The parliamentary investigator was packed off to prison just days before he was to release his report, on a charge of revealing state secrets. An FSB man who reportedly had rented an apartment in each of the demolished buildings was killed in a car wreck in Cyprus. The investigation was shut down.

More recently, when terrorists seized a school in Beslan, a Russian journalist named Anna Politkovskaya, who had criticized the war in Chechnya, was hospitalized after trying to fly to the scene from Moscow -- she recovered, and believes she, too, was poisoned.

In neighboring Belarus, four of the president's opponents have simply disappeared: Yury Zakharanka, Viktar Hanchar, Anatol Krasouski and Dzmitry Zavadski.

Ukraine, to be sure, has not been immune. Georgy Gongadze, a crusading journalist who had annoyed outgoing President Leonid D. Kuchma, was found beheaded. But this is the common space that Mr. Yushchenko would like to leave behind. He used to be a handsome and mild man, but last week his chief of staff, Oleh Rybachuk, said it was as though he had been to the far side of the moon and back, and now nothing will stop him. Let's hope he's right, because the perils have by no means subsided in the still-unfolding Orange Revolution.

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