Foreign Policy: Ukraine's Phantom Swine Flu

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Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko i i

Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, left, wears a face mask as she visits a regional hospital in Lutsk, about 400 km (247 miles) west of Kiev, Ukraine, Monday, Nov. 9, 2009. A newspaper quoted a government official warning that Ukraine's presidential election in January could be postponed because of swine flu. Aleksandr Prokopenko/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Aleksandr Prokopenko/AP
Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko

Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, left, wears a face mask as she visits a regional hospital in Lutsk, about 400 km (247 miles) west of Kiev, Ukraine, Monday, Nov. 9, 2009. A newspaper quoted a government official warning that Ukraine's presidential election in January could be postponed because of swine flu.

Aleksandr Prokopenko/AP

The global swine flu outbreak has become something of a political football in every country where the pandemic has spread, but Ukraine's response to the virus has achieved a new level of blatant politicization. According to a campaign advisor to Yulia Tymoshenko, the Ukrainian prime minister and presidential candidate purposely inflated fears of an ongoing swine-flu epidemic to aid her presidential run.

"We had to create a phantom and then have a white knight riding in to save the day," Taras Berezovets, a senior campaign advisor for Tymoshenko's BYuT bloc, told me in a Kiev restaurant, confirming widespread suspicions among Ukrainian journalists.

Since October, Ukraine has been in the grips of a full-blown panic over swine flu, complete with quarantines, school closures, runs on pharmacies. The Ukrainian health system, already badly dilapidated, was caught off guard and almost 400 people died of the flu in just three weeks.

Tymoshenko flew into action, organizing a delivery of the antiviral drug Tamiflu — and the requisite press conference — at the Kiev airport in the early morning hours of Nov. 2. She quarantined nine regions of the country, closed all schools and universities, and petitioned the president for $125 million in emergency funds to fight what seemed to be "the plague of the 21st-century plague," as one Ukrainian put it. Incidentally, she also banned all mass gatherings and political rallies — after she had already had hers.

Although the World Health Organization concluded that "the numbers of severe cases do not appear to be excessive when compared to the experience of other countries," the call for calm was drowned out by Tymoshenko's drumbeat of action. Pharmacies ran out of surgical masks and medicines as panicked Ukrainians dangerously hoarded supplies.

The fracas couldn't have come at a better time for Tymoshenko, the self-styled heroine of the 2004 Orange Revolution, who was losing the race to the very man the revolution disgraced: Viktor Yanukovich, the Russian-backed candidate. Tymoshenko's second term has been marred by vicious backbiting with her onetime Orange Revolution ally, President Victor Yushchenko, her perceived pandering to Russia on gas deals, and her apparent inability to save Ukraine from the absolute implosion of its economy.

As GDP contracted by over 15 percent in the third quarter of 2009 and Tymoshenko continued to bicker with Yushchenko, her approval ratings plummeted from a high of 47 percent in the spring of 2005 to just 14 percent in October. (And that was an improvement from her summer numbers.) Yanukovich, on the other hand, a man few Ukrainians trust because he twice did jail time for unclear reasons and who was suspected of poisoning Yushchenko, has seen his numbers climb to double that.

Thanks to her vigorous response to a swine-flu panic she herself manufactured, however, Tymoshenko has been steadily catching up, nearly halving the gap in the polls. Outfoxed, Yanukovich tried to return the parry by ordering more surgical masks, but the damage was already done.

But with the WHO concluding that there was nothing unusual about Ukraine's flu outbreak and the government ending the quarantine, saying that the epidemic had peaked after just a few weeks, journalists and political observers have long been questioning whether the swine flu actually affected Ukraine disproportionately or if this was simply a campaign ploy used by the prime minister, a suspicion now confirmed by one of Tymoshenko's top advisors.

When asked for comment on Berezovets's statement, a Tymoshenko spokesperson said, "I have not heard any such information. All I know is that Yulia Volodymyrovna used all the government's powers to prevent the spread of swine flu and the visiting WHO delegation which was here yesterday gave her high marks."

Some observers — including the WHO — point out that, spin job or not, Tymoshenko's energetic response did help put Ukraine's failing health system in some order ahead of an oncoming second wave of swine flu.

But for Tymoshenko's people, the one true benefit is clear. As Berezovets put it, "We won in the media."

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