Monday, November 16

Swine flu! Plague! Ukraine presidential politics!

A colleague sent me this November 15 news item from Britain's Daily Express headlined MILLION HIT BY "PLAGUE WORSE THAN SWINE FLU"; she commented, "Always watch the other hand." So naturally I opened the link and read with interest:
A deadly plague could sweep across Europe, doctors fear, after an outbreak of a virus in Ukraine plunged the country and its neighbours into a state of panic.

A cocktail of three flu viruses are reported to have mutated into a single pneumonic plague, which it is believed may be far more dangerous than swine flu. The death toll has reached 189 and more than 1 million people have been infected, most of them in the nine regions of Western Ukraine.

President of Ukraine Viktor Yushchenko has called in the World Health Organisation and a team of nine specialists are carrying out tests in Kiev and Lviv to identify the virus. Samples have been sent to London for analysis.

President Yushchenko said: “People are dying. The epidemic is killing doctors. This is absolutely inconceivable in the 21st Century."

In a TV interview, the President added: “Unlike similar epidemics in other countries, three causes of serious viral infections came together simultaneously in Ukraine – two seasonal flus and the Californian flu.

“Virologists conclude that this combination of infections may produce an even more aggressive new virus as a result of mutation.”

Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko has been touring hospitals where victims are being treated and presidential elections in January could be cancelled.[...]
At that point I could not continue reading due to paroxysms of laughter.

In the effort to get a grip I busied myself with finding recent reports on Ukraine's politics and rooting around in the Pundita archives for an old article about the dynamic, co-dependent, and oft-warring duo of Yulia Tymoshenko and Viktor Yushchenko.

These I planned to send to the colleague with the following note before I decided to turn it into a post:

Thank you very much for sending the article. However, be careful, be very careful, whenever Viktor Yushchenko is involved. Watch not only the other hand but also behind the back.

Yushy is a Ukrainian oligarch; I think he once threatened to sue anyone who called him a crook over that trifling matter several years ago of $600 million that went missing from the IMF while he headed up Ukraine's central bank. But I digress; he was installed as Ukraine's president in the phony US-backed 'orange' revolution in 2004. His approval rating in Ukraine is around 5% right now and he's fighting for his political life.

Swine flu has been turned into cannon fodder in the latest war between Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko, his prime minister and another Ukrainian oligarch with a very colorful career, with Yulia accusing Yushy of trying to use the swine flu outbreak in Ukraine to stall the planned January election, and Yushy accusing Tymoshenko of criminal negligence in the handling of the outbreak.

It gets better, or worse, or simply more complicated, depending on how you want to look at it:

Yushy is in Ukraine's anti-Russia camp, and Yulia has moved into the 'let's be pragmatic camp' with regards Russia. So there's much more at stake here than a national political election because Ukraine is Russia's Line in the Sand when it comes to NATO's meddling in former Soviet countries.

Here comes the knee-slapper: Yushy and Yulia have been doing so much fighting, and between them they've made such a mess of Ukraine's economy, that Viktor Yanukovych might walk off with the presidential election.

Yanukovych was Russia's pick for Ukraine's president against Yushy in 2004 but his people were accused of ballot stuffing to put him in office -- it was really a matter of which camp could stuff the most without being caught -- and so the election was annulled and Yushy was 'elected.'

But this time Moscow is keeping clear of Ukraine's presidential politics, which is making Yanukovych look even better and pumping up his poll numbers. So the question at this moment is whether Yulia has joined with Yushy in calling for a postponement of the election due to circumstances beyond everyone's control such as a new plague.

If you don't see what's so terribly funny about all this, I'm not sure you want to hear the whole story but there are any number of fables that advise to leave well enough alone. And that is the situation I warned about in a 2005 post titled, But Kuchma was our tyrant. I pointed out that Ukraine's president Leonid Kuchma was a perfectly serviceable U.S. puppet for many years who managed to get along with both the European Union and Russia and who pulled Ukraine out of its moribund post-Soviet economy.

But then came the not-so-covert war against Vladimir Putin (Russia's president at the time) staged by the U.S. Department of State and the rest of the Get Russia crowd, which mushroomed after Putin had the bad grace to sack Russia's Oligarchs.

So Kuchma, who got along well with Putin, found himself accused of ordering every political murder that happened in Ukraine and Yushy accused him of selling missiles to Iran. This cleared the deck for Yushy and Yulia to show they could be better U.S. puppets, which included freezing out Putin.

And here we are today, with Washington slowly waking up to the fact that it was idiocy to make an enemy of Russia by meddling in Ukraine. And here is today's Ukrainian presidential politics:
KIEV, Nov 11 (Reuters) - Ukraine's president and prime minister hurled angry accusations at each other on Wednesday over ways of fighting an influenza epidemic, now a major factor in campaigning for a January election in which they are rivals.

A total of 189 people have died in the outbreak, the health ministry said, and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko has cancelled political rallies and ordered schools shut to try to curb it.

The toll included 17 deaths from the H1N1 flu, First Deputy Health Minister Vasily Lazorishinets told journalists.

The health scare has caused panic across Ukraine and has become, like other hot issues such as contacts with the International Monetary Fund, a political football between President Viktor Yushchenko and Tymoshenko, both contenders in the Jan. 17 poll for president.

Weighing in against Yushchenko, Tymoshenko told ministers that the President, by failing to approve a law to release $125 million to fight the outbreak, was endangering human life.

"Without the signing of this law, the government can not fight this epidemic today," she said.

"The action of the President ... is an action today against Ukraine. The President will be responsible for every person who is ill today or dies."

Yushchenko, who in late October gave the go-ahead to rises in pensions and the minimum wage in defiance of the IMF and pleas by Tymoshenko, hit back immediately.

Signing a proposed law to release anti-flu funds would lead to new money being printed and a devaluation of the national currency, the hryvnia, he said.

"I will not be the author of such a policy. I don't need to be blackmailed. I have the right of President. I am taking a decision (to veto the bill) and it's taken," Interfax news agency quoted him as saying.

Implying further criticism of Yushchenko, Tymoshenko said Ukraine's economy will undergo an "extremely difficult" period without $3.8 billion from the IMF, which her aides fear would rebound on Kiev's ability to pay for Russian gas.

The Fund refrained from releasing the funds -- part of a $16.4 billion programme to counter the economic crisis -- after Yushchenko signed the minimum wage law into force.
And here's more on that lovely duo, and Ukraine's woes, from Andrew Osborn reporting from Moscow November 15 for the (U.K.) Telegraph:
Apparently keen to curry favour with voters, Viktor Yushchenko, the president, turned a blind eye to the appalling state of Ukraine's public finances and recently approved a 20 per cent hike in wages and pensions last month. But, by ignoring the advice of the International Monetary Fund, the European Union, and Yulia Tymoshenko, his own prime minister, Mr Yushchenko has jeopardised the disbursement of badly-needed IMF funds.

Mr Yushchenko justified the move by saying he was unwilling to solve the country's budget problems "at the expense of pensioners, poor people and the disabled."

But the IMF has now suspended payment of a $3.8 billion loan, arguing that Ukraine needs austerity measures rather than profligacy. Ukraine needed the IMF money to plug gaping holes in its budget.

Five years ago, large-scale protests set up what was supposed to be a pro-Western dream team of Mr Yushchenko and Mrs Tymoshenko. But the duo's friendship has since turned to loathing even though the pair continue jointly to govern the ex-Soviet republic.

The two are now bitter rivals who will face off against each another in a January presidential election. Analysts warn their battle for power appears to be poisoning the country's economic prospects and could interfere again with the supply and transit of gas to the West in the coming winter.

The country's biggest strategic companies are saddled with crippling debts, including the state gas company which has struggled to meet Russian gas payments, only just managing a $500m payment this month.

Mrs Tymoshenko's supporters have accused Mr Yushchenko of raw populism and irresponsibility, intensifying a political standoff that opinion polls show Mr Yushchenko is losing. Polls show he has just 5 per cent support compared to Mrs Tymoshenko's 20 per cent.

Meanwhile the global economic crisis has caused the country's budget deficit to balloon, its inefficient Soviet-era factories to stagger, and international rating agencies have rushed to downgrade their view of economic prospects. The national currency, the hryvnia, has plunged by 60 per cent in a year, foreign direct investment has slowed to a trickle, and bad bank loans have multiplied.

Ironically, all this has left the Kremlin's candidate for the Ukrainian presidency in 2004 – Viktor Yanukovych – with a strong lead in the polls, making him the candidate to beat.[...]
As for that old report, if memory serves my only complaint about it when I linked to it, in 2005, was that it had nary a word to say about the U.S. Department of State's role in the mess. But you can't find a better introduction to Yulia Tymoshenko and Viktor Yushchenko.

Once you get in the swing of the story, you might pardon my cynicism about the serious matter of plague.

As to those missile sales, reference the pirating of the MV Faina last year, which turned up the ship's very strange cargo. Translation: business as usual in Ukraine.

Just received this item, which I present with no editorial comment whatsoever:

November 04, 2009
"Authorities Deny Aircraft Are Spraying Aerosol Chemtrails and Forced Medications Over Ukrainian Cities (Martial Law Expected as Mystery Flu Spreads)"

This just in; from the same source as the Nov. 4 report:

November 15, 2009
"Ukraine; Virus Is Mixture Of H1N1 And Parainfluenza, Causes Cardiopulmonary Failure; Indicates BioWeapon"

This time I will comment: The World Health Organization needs to get on the horn and read the riot act to Ukraine's battling politicians before the whole country ends up in the loony bin.


Anonymous said...

Hey! I don't think I've ever commented here before, and in all honesty I haven't read your blog much. But I think I shall have to become a regular reader after reading this article. The Baron from Gates of Vienna emailed it to me.

You're very correct about Ukraine, which is impressive because so many people I can think of get Ukraine completely wrong, no matter how correct they are on other issues. The only issue I would disagree about is your characterization of Tymoshenko--I think she's WAY more anti-Russia than you have said in the article.

Anyway, great blog and great analysis... I look forward to reading more :)

Pundita said...

Hi, Natalie -- Thanks for your comments. Re your observation that Tymoshenko is more anti-Russia than I observed, I wrote only that she'd moved into the 'let's be pragmatic camp' with regards Russia, which is borne out by facts.

Very briefly, Wikipedia's article about her (see "2008 political crisis") subheading correctly observes: "[...] The coalition of Tymoshenko's Bloc Yulia Tymoshenko (BYuT) and Yushchenko's Our Ukraine–People's Self-Defense Bloc (OU-PSD) was put at risk due to differing opinions on the ongoing 2008 South Ossetia War between Georgia and Russia. Yulia Tymoshenko disagreed with Yushchenko's condemnation of Russia and preferred to stay neutral on the issue. Yushchenko's office accused her of taking a softer position in order to gain support from Russia in the upcoming 2010 election. Andriy Kyslynskyi, the president's deputy chief of staff, went as far as to call her a 'traitor' [...]

That she was willing to risk a major split in the coalition on the issue of whether to condemn Russia's role in the S. Ossetia War gives ample indication that by 2008 she was taking a more pragmatic line toward Russia.

That's not the same as saying she's pro-Russia so I take your point.

However, I think her willingness to see a split in the coalition over the Russia issue reflects her understanding of the realities for Ukraine and the negotiations with Russia during the 2008-2009 gas crisis, in which she played a major role at working out an agreement.

But by then the damage had been done, with the EU expressing a loss of confidence in Russia and Ukraine as reliable partners. The EU customers just want their gas, and don't want to freeze in the winter because Kiev and Moscow are always battling it out.

Germany was so disgusted with Ukraine's antics in the gas war that they're teaming with Russia to build a gas pipeline that skirts Ukraine.

No one understands the gas issue better than Tymoshenko and so I think she realized that the cold war Ukraine had been fighting against Russia was cutting off Ukraine's nose to spite its face.

Her refusal to be drawn into the Georgia-Russia conflict is a long way from her statements in the 2004 election campaign, when she wanted to carry the 'orange revolution' to Moscow, and with the other GUUAM nations (including Georgia) build an 'iron ring' around Russia.

She has sidelined that kind of rhetoric.

Sean Rushforth said...

A new strain of swine flu that is resistant to anti-viral drugs has been discovered in the UK for the first time.

Pundita said...

Sean, Such mutations have been reported several times around the world. So contrary to what Sturgeon says in the BBC report below I'd consider them fairly common.

But with one exception I know of (a case isolated in Hong Kong early this summer) there is no known instance of a person-to-person transmission of a Tamiflu-resistant strain and even that case seems to have been an isolated one.

Granted, lab reports on swine flu cases have been so spotty and erratic in most countries, including the USA, it's entirely possible there are Tamiflu-resistant strains being passed person-to-person and which health workers simply haven't picked up on yet.

However, these mutations usually occur when people who (unknowingly)
already have swine flu take a prophylactic dose of the drug instead of the curative dose. In that event the flu bug can easily overwhelm the drug's defenses via a mutation. But again, it's not a significant mutation with the exception of the Hong Kong case.

And, as Sturgeon says, the mutations can occur when a person has been on Tamiflu for an extended period.

In short, such mutations relate to patient 'abuse' of the drug; they're not a sign of the flu becoming more virulent or infectious.

My memory of the Hong Kong case is a little hazy but from what I can recall, the person had flown into HK from the USA -- San Francisco, maybe. She had swine flu when she arrived in HK, where the case was caught. She was treated but she refused to take Tamiflu.

She recovered fine. But on a routine random check of swine flu samples, the HK lab found that she had a Tamiflu resistant strain of the bug. That would suggest she'd caught a Tamiflu-resistant strain in the USA. But with no supporting evidence of any such cases in the USA, the case has to be considered an anomaly.

From the (Nov 16) BBC report on the same story you sent:

"[...] It has also emerged that two people in Scotland have been found with a strain of the virus resistant to Tamiflu.

However, Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon said both patients concerned had made a full recovery and another drug could be taken to treat the virus.

She told BBC Radio's Good Morning Scotland programme: "This is a rare occurrence but it's not of huge concern and it's certainly not a sign that swine flu is mutating into something more serious.

"It's something that can happen when an individual is on anti-virals for a prolonged period of time."

The patients concerned, and others across the UK, developed a resistance only to the Tamiflu drug.

Ms Sturgeon added: "We have stockpiles of another anti-viral which can be used to treat patients.

"Secondly, there's absolutely no evidence of person to person transmission of a resistant H1N1 strain.

"Health Protection Scotland monitor these things carefully, but at this stage there's no cause for people to be concerned." [...]"