On Dec. 4 Viktor Yushchenko, opposition candidate for the presidency of the Ukraine, stepped before thousands of die-hard supporters in Kiev and asked, "Do you like my face? This is the face of today's Ukraine."
Few in the crowd had seen anything like it. At the age of 50, Yushchenko has a face that is a horror mask of pocks and cysts—and a visage that mirrors an intrigue worthy of the medieval czars. Only six months ago, the ruggedly handsome reform candidate appeared youthful and athletic. But as a bitter campaign for the nation's top job intensified, pitting him against his archrival, incumbent prime minister Viktor Yanukovich, his appearance and health rapidly declined, sparking speculation of foul play. "Poison is under strong consideration," says Dr. Michael Zimpfer, 53, a Viennese physician who treated Yushchenko last September. Zimpfer suspects the toxic agent may be dioxin, a powerful, long-acting poison, and is awaiting test results. Yushchenko's rivals scoff at any such suggestion.
Although Yushchenko has taken morphine to cope with crippling back pain and has multiple ulcers, he insists on staying in the race until a second runoff vote Dec. 26. (The first runoff, in November, was deemed fraudulent by Ukraine's Supreme Court.) The ailing candidate's Ukrainian-American wife of six years, Kateryna, 43, says she is horrified by the deterioration of the partner she calls "not only handsome but a Renaissance man," who paints and sculpts and has a passion for beekeeping. "His dream is to make honey wine when he retires," says the former tax adviser who has three children under 5 with Yushchenko. She says she was wary when he launched his political career in 1998. Now, with her husband's prognosis—and the nation's—uncertain, says Kateryna, "we continue to be scared."
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