KIEV -- Ukraine's outgoing government sought yesterday to control the inquiry into the poisoning of presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko, with officials close to the government taking charge of both investigations into who tried to harm or kill the leader of the Orange Revolution.
The head of a new inquiry by legislators, an ally of Yushchenko's opponent in the court-ordered Dec. 26 presidential rematch, immediately cast doubt on whether deliberate poisoning could be proved. The decision by a parliamentary commission to reopen its probe was made a day after a similar move by the country's new top prosecutor.
Yushchenko praised Prosecutor General Svyatoslav Piskun on Sunday for resuming the investigation after an elite clinic in Austria determined over the weekend he had been poisoned by dioxin. But he said he hoped the investigation would be conducted after the election because he did not want it to influence the vote "positively or negatively."
In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the Bush administration was deeply disturbed by the physicians' report.
"We support a full and complete transparent investigation into that matter, into how it happened, who did it, what the cause was," Boucher said yesterday.
The poisoning was not the first time that government opponents have been attacked in this former Soviet republic. More than two dozen Ukrainian politicians, high-ranking businessmen and journalists have died under suspicious circumstances over the past 10 years. All investigations into the deaths have proved inconclusive.
Getting to the bottom of what happened to Yushchenko is fraught with difficulties because many people stood to gain if he were sidelined from the election.
Speculation about who might have been responsible for the poisoning began immediately.
Pro-Yushchenko lawmaker Yuriy Pavlenko speculated that Russian agents may have been involved -- a popular local theory stemming from President Vladimir Putin's backing of Yushchenko's rival, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych.
"It is precisely Russia that was interested in neutralizing Viktor Yushchenko," Pavlenko said.
Many of the ruling elite faced the loss of lucrative contracts made possible by high-level connections if Yanukovych, President Leonid 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 is an important regional trading outlet to the Black Sea and Middle East, while the naval base in Sevastopol is Russia's only deep-water port on the entire Black Sea coast. Russia also imports food from Ukraine, and in return, this country of 48 million is a key consumer of Russian goods and products.
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 Ukrainian political analysts, such as Markian Bilynskyj, suggest that the point of the attack was to sideline Yushchenko 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."
Doctors in Austria said Saturday that the dioxin, which caused dramatic facial disfigurement and other ailments, may have been slipped into his food.
Yushchenko had dinner with Security Service chief Ihor Smeshko and his deputy Volodymyr Satsyuk on Sept. 5. Yushchenko's American-born wife, Kateryna Chumachenko, told Ukraine's Zerkalo Nedeli weekly that her husband came home late and that when she kissed him she felt the strange taste of medicine.
The candidate fell sick the next day, and Ukrainian doctors treated him for food poisoning. Yushchenko was rushed to the Austrian clinic Sept. 10. Smeshko has denied poisoning him.
Mikhail Pohrebinsky, a Kiev-based political analyst with ties to Kuchma, said all of the scenarios about Yushchenko's poisoning "are politically motivated and far from the truth."
For his part, Yanukovych said he sympathized with his rival and that he wished him "no evil."
In an interview, he demanded a thorough investigation and promised not to interfere. But he emphasized that the impact of the dioxin could hamper Yushchenko's performance should he be elected in the rerun.