Ukraine's Klitschko: Could pugilist-turned-politican be next president?

The boxing champion, now a leading figure in Ukraine's opposition, has gained in stature during weeks of protest. But no one knows his politics.

Sergei Grits/AP
Ukrainian lawmaker and WBC heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko (c.) stands with pro-European Union activists against Ukrainian riot police in Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine, early Wednesday morning. The boxer-turned-politician has become a leading opposition figure in Ukraine during the anti-government protests, and is being touted by some as a future president.

Vitali Klitschko, the reigning WBC heavyweight boxing champion, is a hero in his home nation of Ukraine, and not just for his success in the ring. 

A towering figure from the world of sport, he is also emerging as one of the leading opposition leaders during the current antigovernment protests – so much so that he is increasingly looked upon as a potential candidate for president.

Throughout the almost three-week-long demonstrations that have engulfed the Ukrainian capital of Kiev following the government’s decision to back out of a trade agreement with the Europe Union, the 42-year-old has become an almost ubiquitous presence at the main protest site in Independence Square.

The boxer-turned-politician has appeared onstage almost daily to urge protestors on, held press conferences at the nearby media center, and walked through the crowded streets of Independence Square, where adoring crowds shouted: "Klitschko, our next president!" as he strolled past, surrounded by security guards.

On Saturday evening, he stood on stage urging a million people to gather on the streets the following day. And last night, as the demonstrations looked to turn violent with police moving in to demolish some of the barricades put up around the square, Mr. Klitschko and his younger brother Wladimir, also a boxing champion, were once again at the front, adding their voices to those defending the square.

“People here are determined not to live in a police state,” he told media at the time.

For many in Ukraine Klitschko is a breath of fresh air: a political figure without strong links to any of the traditional political parties, nor seemingly to the oligarchs, the rich businessmen who are said to wield huge influence behind the scenes.

“I would like to see Klitschko as president,” says Ioana Cherepanya, a student who has traveled to Kiev from Lviv, a city in the west of the country, to protest against the government of President Viktor Yanukovych. “He has money from boxing, so unlike the other guys who come in and just take from the country he won’t need to.”

An opportunity

Over the last decade, Ukrainians have become increasingly angry with the political situation in their country, culminating in this latest political crisis.

In 2004, the Orange Revolution, which drew millions to the streets, began with protests against an election that many believed was rigged in favor of Mr. Yanukovych. After a second run-off vote, this time monitored by international observers, his rival, Viktor Yushchenko, was named president.

Yanukovych was later elected president in 2010, the same year that Yulia Tymoshenko, who became prime minister after the Orange Revolution, was jailed for abuse of power and embezzlement, though her supporters maintain that the charges were politically motivated.

With so little faith left in the traditional parties, Klitschko has emerged in the last few years as a popular alternative candidate.

Last year, the party he founded, UDAR, or "punch" in English, came in a strong third in parliamentary elections, while polls this September suggested that Klitschko would likely win a run-off election with Yanukovych should he compete in the next presidential election.

Klitschko has already said that he intends to run, but his eligibility isn’t a given; a Yanukovych-dominated parliament passed a ruling earlier this year barring Klitschko from standing due to the fact that he spent several years living and paying tax in Germany rather than Ukraine.

Klitschko has recently learned to speak Ukrainian ­– he was born and raised in a Russian-speaking area of the former Soviet Union – and has surrounded himself with a team of experienced political appointments to try to counter his lack of experience.

'We don't know what he stands for'

But despite his current and growing popularity, some remain wary about what a Klitschko presidency would mean.

“In Ukraine, you ask what issues politicians stand for and they won’t answer, and this is true of Klitschko,” says Alisa Ruban, international secretary for Democratic Alliance, a new and youth-driven political party formed in 2010. “We don’t know what he stands for or would do differently if he was president.”

“Klitschko has never articulated in a proper way what comes after he is elected,” says Yaroslav Pylynskyi, director of the Kiev office of the Kennan Institute, a US-based research center. “It is good to throw out these bandits from government, but if we bring in a government with new bandits it’s a big problem.”

An increasing percentage of the population, however, seem willing to give him a shot.

“Klitschko earned his money with his own hands and hard work, so he knows that life isn’t easy,” says Valeriy Kolomiyets, a director at the Ukrainian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

“Ukraine needs someone who, unlike Yanukovych, does good not just for a few people in the country but for as many as possible. If Klitschko surrounds himself with a strong team he could be a good president. He is one of those that deserves a chance.”

Street leader

On the streets of Kiev, Klitschko is a rallying force for the protestors. On the night of Nov. 30 after police stormed the square, Klitschko was one of the few opposition leaders present, and urged against the storming of the presidential palace. He has remained a firm voice throughout, pushing the issue of justice for those injured in those clashes and an inquiry into the actions of the police, while all the time demanding the resignation of the sitting president.  

Few among the protestors doubt that Klitschko means well, but there is still a divide over whether he is ready to be the nation’s leader, or whether an ex-boxer would be the ideal president for Ukraine.

“He is a good man, accomplished, and I believe in him, but I have doubts,” says Roman Korsyuk, a water delivery man from Lutsk who has joined the protests in Kiev.

“I like Klitschko,’” says Alexandr Pustovoit, a builder from Chernigov, standing in the occupied square. “He’s a great boxer, a national hero, but not a politician. I would prefer Tymoshenko back.”

Others, however, are more optimistic about a Klitschko presidency.

“I think it will be Klitschko as next president,” says Dmytro Gruniv, a protestor who owns a small construction company in Lviv. “I would be very happy with that.”

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