KIEV, Ukraine – Supporters of opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko (search) expanded a campaign to spread their so-called Orange Revolution beyond Ukraine's capital Tuesday, organizing a convoy that will visit 15 cities in the coming days — including in eastern provinces that have been hostile to the candidate.
More than 50 supporters of the Pora (It's Time) youth movement will head to the pro-Russian eastern provinces, hoping to win over voters in areas where support for Yushchenko's Kremlin-backed opponent, Viktor Yanukovych (search), has been strong.
Yushchenko and Yanukovych face off for the presidency in a Dec. 26 contest ordered by the Supreme Court after the their Nov. 21 runoff was voided by the Supreme Court because of massive fraud. Yushchenko's supporters massed in the streets by the tens of thousands following the runoff, wearing the opposition's trademark orange color.
The "friendship journey" is part of a campaign that been roiled by the explosive confirmation from an Austrian clinic over the weekend that Yushchenko had been poisoned by dioxin. Prosecutors and a parliamentary committee quickly set up investigations — the second time each has examined the poisoning incident — and officials close to the Ukrainian leadership took charge of both.
Getting to the bottom of what happened to Yushchenko is fraught with troubles because many people — both in business and politics — stood to gain from sidelining him.
"So far we don't have an independent source of information which could allow us to analyze the situation," said Mikhail Pohrebinsky, a Kiev-based political analyst with ties to President Leonid Kuchma. He said that all of the scenarios about Yushchenko's poisoning "are politically motivated and far from the truth."
Pro-Yushchenko lawmaker Yuriy Pavlenko speculated that Russian agents may have been involved — a popular local theory stemming from Russian President Vladimir Putin's (search) backing of Yanukovych.
Many of the ruling political and business elite faced the loss of lucrative contracts made possible by high level connections if Yanukovych — Kuchma's hand-picked successor — lost the race, analysts said.
Many of those contracts involve Russia. All but one of Russia's major infrastructure links and natural gas exports to Europe pass through Ukraine.
The Ukrainian port of Odessa (search) is a key regional trading outlet to the Black Sea and Middle East, while the naval base in Sevastopol (search) is Russia's only deep-water port on the entire Black Sea coast. Russia also imports food from Ukraine and, in return, the country of 48 million is a key consumer of Russian goods.
Taras Chornovil, Yanukovych's campaign manager, said it was possible that someone connected to Kuchma might have had a role. Or, it could have been someone from Yushchenko's own entourage looking to manipulate a sick president, he said.
Lawmakers from Yushchenko's party have said the Austrian clinic's findings confirmed that his opponents wanted to assassinate him rather than take the risk he would defeat Yanukovych. But some analysts, such as Markian Bilynskyj, suggest that the point of the attack was to sideline Yushchenko just long enough for him to drop from the public eye and lose support.
"The idea wasn't to kill him, to assassinate him," Bilynskyj said. "That would have turned Kuchma into a pariah. That would have been too obvious."
Government opponents have faced attack before. More than two dozen Ukrainian politicians, high-ranking businessmen and journalists have died under suspicious circumstances during Kuchma's decade in power. All investigations into the deaths have proved inconclusive.
For his part, Yanukovych said he sympathized with his rival and that he wished him "no evil."
In an interview with The Associated Press, he demanded a thorough investigation and promised not to interfere in it. But he stressed that the impact of the dioxin could hamper Yushchenko's performance should he be elected in this month's rerun.
"The fact of the matter is that Yushchenko is seriously ill," he said. "We can all see it."
While high concentrations of dioxin, a byproduct of industrial processes, remain in his blood, doctors said Yushchenko's organs have not been damaged and he is fit for the campaign trail. His prognosis depends on which dioxin he ingested — which is as yet unknown — and in what amount.
Yanukovych also accused the United States of meddling in Ukraine's internal affairs and claimed that Washington had financed Yushchenko's campaign.
On Tuesday, Serhiy Gmyrya, a communist lawmaker, demanded that parliament investigate Yanukovych's allegations.
But parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn quickly rejected the demands and urged the communists to "forward their request through regular procedures instead from the rostrum."