Viktor Yushchenko was formally sworn in as Ukraine's president Jan. 23. He is not a well man. During his campaign for the presidency, an as yet undiscovered person or group poisoned Yushchenko with dioxin, which resulted in facial disfigurement called chloracne. Any attempt to give a prognosis of Yushchenko's condition is, of course, a bit of a shot in the dark, and STRATFOR certainly is not presenting itself as an expert in all things medical. But dioxins are among the most carcinogenic of all materials, and there is only one recorded instance of anyone having a higher concentration of them than Yushchenko has now. Ukraine has just elected a new president, but health issues could well cut his tenure short.
In the event of his untimely death or incapacitation, Yushchenko's immediate successor would be Yulia Timoshenko, a political ally he nominated for the prime minister position Jan. 24. Timoshenko made a name for herself during the recent presidential campaign as an unrelenting supporter of Yushchenko. A fiery, charismatic — and at times charming — speaker in her own right, she not only galvanized Ukraine's anti-Russian ultranationalists behind Yushchenko, but also managed to win some hearts and turn some heads in Donetsk, her political opponents' center of power. Timoshenko has long been touted — by herself most enthusiastically and persistently —- as Yushchenko's prime ministerial candidate, a fact which has spurred more than one idle observer to note that when all is said and done, it is the persuasive Timoshenko who stands the most to gain from her boss' poisoning. From a purely objective standpoint, Timoshenko does not appear all that different from Yushchenko. They both favor integration with the West, a cooler approach to Russo-Ukrainian relations and a revisiting of much of what the government has done in the years before they grabbed the reins. STRATFOR does not believe that Yushchenko is as sharp a break with the past as the media seems to believe — he was, after all, a prime minister himself not too long ago — but a President Timoshenko is a development that few would savor. Surprisingly, sources across the board — even among her supporters — all characterized Timoshenko as rather difficult to deal with. But the real meat is in her history. In the 1990s, Timoshenko played a role in the government's privatization rounds, which, in a manner similar to Russia, amounted to little more than asset stripping. As such, she contributed mightily to the formation of the Ukrainian oligarchs — of which she remains one for all practical purposes. She is alleged to have siphoned off natural gas from Russian transport lines that ship the gas to Europe — a common practice in the past — and then sold it to other entities, pocketing the profits. Her questionable deals with the Russian Defense Ministry have left them enraged, and left her, as the story goes, walking away with some $400 million. Needless to say, the Russians, as a consequence, are none too fond of her and even have an outstanding warrant with Interpol for her detention (although officially it is only for "questioning"). While the West has refrained from saying anything even remotely negative about the soon-to-be prime minister, the Russians are not the only ones who are leery about Timoshenko's record. Timoshenko first rose to political prominence due to the sponsorship of a close friend, former Ukrainian Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko. Lazarenko was convicted of money laundering and is currently serving a prison term — in the United States. As energy minister her business deals also raised more than a few eyebrows, not all of which were Russian. Timoshenko's personal connections could well trigger a new period of political instability in Ukraine. Timoshenko and Yushchenko both have pledged to revisit, and if necessary, reverse the privatization process of the 1990s, a process that could prove as disruptive to the Ukrainian economy as Russia's campaign against Yukos has been to its Russian counterpart. This is not to say that the privatization rounds were carried out cleanly — and Timoshenko certainly knows many of the details — but the very logical fear is that Timoshenko will redistribute state assets to friends and family, simply moving the assets from one group of thieves to another. Some of this will happen with her as prime minister, but as president, her authority — and ambition — would have far fewer constraints. That process already might be beginning. On Jan. 21, a Kiev court, taking its cue from the changing political winds, opened proceedings on whether to annul the privatization of the country's largest steel mill. The mill was sold for $800 million in 2004 to a group that included then-President Leonid Kuchma's son-in-law. If developments land her as president before 2006, her influence will be far greater. That is when recent constitutional revisions which weaken presidential powers take effect. But even then she will not be all-powerful. Her aggressive manner will lessen her pull with all but the most nationalistic of western Ukrainians. Her history of undercutting, outmaneuvering, striking down and/or otherwise besmirching Ukraine's numerous oligarchs has earned her a long list of foes. The real danger, however, is not what she will or will not attempt vis-a-vis the country's economic powers, or even that she would likely sabotage Ukrainian-Russian relations. The stability and integrity of Ukraine is balanced on a knife's edge between the nationalist west and the Russophilic east. It will take every shred of tact, understanding and patience that Yushchenko has to keep the country together while implementing his go-West program. Timoshenko does not possess a wealth of any of those qualities. So why has the West been so apparently blase about — and according to sources in the Ukrainian government, actively lobbied for — Timoshenko? Specifically, because she is fiery and radical and energetic and anti-Russian in equal measures. Politically, she makes the perfect counterpoint to Yushchenko's calm appeals. Strategically, her vehement anti-Russianness will not only tilt Ukraine more firmly against Russia, but also her presence is a none-too-subtle reminder that there is an ambitious someone waiting in the wings to replace him should Yushchenko fall from the West's favor. The West ditched former pro-Western Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze in a heartbeat for Mikhail Saakashvili when the time came, and Yushchenko's own predecessor accurately could be described as ethically suspect, but certainly not anti-Western. After all, it was Kuchma who defied public and parliamentary opinion to send Ukrainian forces to Iraq. But the dioxin is the proverbial fly in the ointment. The West may find it all well and good to have a lever against Yushchenko, but that does not mean that they prefer Timoshenko to take center stage. A President Yushchenko might, just might, be consensus-minded enough to bring the pro-Western western and pro-Russian eastern halves of Ukraine together. A President Timoshenko, on the other hand, probably would not even try. Now, with the possibility in play that the good Mr. Yushchenko might just keel over, the West might soon have to deal with the unintended ascendance of an "ally."