Can Vitali Klitschko, Ukraine’s Revolutionary Heavyweight, Be Its Next President?

The champion boxer tells TIME that Ukraine needs "surgery" to catch up with Europe and warns its current President he may end up with a "bad face"

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Vasily Maximov / AFP / Getty Images

Vitali Klitschko attends a press conference in Kiev, on Dec. 6, 2013

The new battleground for Vitali Klitschko, the world boxing champion, is a far cry from the bloodied rings of his prizefighting past. In the past few weeks, the towering heavyweight known in the sporting world as Dr. Ironfist has emerged as a leader of the popular revolt in his homeland of Ukraine — a struggle that has led him to vacate his world title in order to focus on politics. Protesters in the capital, Kiev, are demanding the government’s ouster after it failed last month to move ahead with an E.U. integration deal, and their rallies have made the city’s Independence Square look like the site of medieval siege warfare. Surrounded by riot police, the demonstrators have erected barricades of ice, scrap metal and loose boards, while, over open fires in the square, volunteers stir giant cauldrons of soup and hot tea to help the crowds withstand the blistering cold.

Klitschko surveys the scene from a tiny, wood-paneled office above the square in the Trade Unions building, which the protesters have turned into a sort of revolutionary fortress. The barricaded doors leading inside are manned by a cluster of guards in helmets and balaclavas — the so-called self-defense units of the uprising — who are on the look out for titushki, the state’s loyalist provocateurs. In the halls of the Soviet-era building, activists register arrivals, clear out loiterers and prepare briefings in the makeshift media center, where a sign written in black marker identifies the venue as the National Resistance Headquarters.

Down the hall, Klitschko reclines in an overstuffed armchair, trying to project the everyman appeal of a professional politician in his black blazer and open-collared dobby shirt. But the strain of the past few weeks shows in his distracted glances toward his smartphone. He has just finished a meeting with the Foreign Minister of Lithuania, the E.U. member that has championed Ukraine’s integration with the West. Before that, Klitschko has met over the past two weeks with senior statesman from Germany and the U.S., as well as the E.U.’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. They all have good reason to look to Klitschko. Even before the protests began, polls showed him becoming the most popular politician in Ukraine, with a chance to beat out the incumbent in the next presidential election just over a year from now.

“We need the moral support,” he says of the Western delegations who have rallied behind the protesters. “The presence of international observers here, this will ensure violence is not used, and that the West has an objective view of what’s going on.”

(MORE: Ukraine Turmoil Pits Russia-Friendly President Against Pro-Western Protesters)

But in the coming months, Ukraine will need more from the West than moral support to claw its way out of the current crisis. “The economy is in a desperate situation,” says Tim Ash, head of emerging-markets research at Standard Bank in London. “It is on the brink of a full-blown balance of payments crisis,” which could lead Ukraine to default on its debts next year and possibly spark a run on the banks. Foreign reserves fell 9% last month to $19 billion, and the treasury has only enough cash to meet its obligations for a few weeks. The problems are fixable, Ash says, but will require major support from the West, including an emergency loan from the International Monetary Fund, which is backed mostly by the U.S. and E.U.

That assistance, however, would come at a heavy price. Ukraine would need to commit to drastic reforms — slashing state subsidies and social spending while also devaluing the currency — and the effect could be catastrophic for the working class in Ukraine. Similar reforms were used in the 1990s to force the transition from communism to capitalism in Poland, Russia and across the former Soviet Union. Known as shock therapy, these reforms led in most cases to hyperinflation, wiped out people’s savings and caused a spike in unemployment as inefficient firms were forced to shut down. But whatever the damage these changes would bring — not only for Ukraine’s poor but also for Klitschko’s ratings among them — the former fighter says they are necessary. “This may be a painful period,” he admits. “But we have to speak honestly about this. Ukraine’s industry is still stuck in Soviet times, and our products are becoming less competitive every day.”

The economic model he looks to for guidance is not Russia, which fell back toward an authoritarian command economy in the wake of its shock therapy in the early 1990s, but Poland, which came out of them to become a thriving E.U. member. “Look at Poland’s GDP, its exports, infrastructure, people’s salaries,” he says. “They have increased many fold over the years, and are many times higher than in Ukraine. Fifteen years ago, the situation was quite different, and Poland was even a little worse off than Ukraine.”

It is an ambitious comparison. But many leaders in both Poland and Russia saw their popularity gutted during the sudden transition to capitalism in the 1990s. So how would Klitschko, whose approval ratings have already outpaced the incumbent President, avoid the same fate? Would he really risk his popularity to meet the demands of the IMF and its Western backers? “When a person is sick,” he says, “they are offered several types of treatment. One is surgery — this will be difficult and painful, but the patient will get better and be healthy. Or they can get a bunch of pills, which will address symptoms but do not guarantee recovery.” Turning pensive, he adds, “We are waiting for too long, we need to speed everything up.”

(MORE: Ukraine’s Protesters Are Inspired by European Ideals, However Illusory)

Experts say Klitschko could be the man to do it. Ukraine’s internal divisions are stark, and for the past decade, it has been ruled by leaders who only enjoy broad support among half the electorate. After the Orange Revolution of 2004, pro-Western leaders like Yulia Tymoshenko came to power, appealing mostly to the western half of the country, where voters speak Ukrainian and strive for integration with their E.U. neighbors. But the Orange leaders alienated the eastern and southern provinces of Ukraine, the Russian-speaking heartland where nostalgia for the Soviet past is still widespread. In 2010, that electorate, made up largely of blue-collar workers in coal-mining regions like Donetsk, allowed the current President Viktor Yanukovych to beat his rival from the Orange Revolution. Tymoshenko was then put on trial for abuse of office and sentenced to seven years in prison.

Klitschko, however, does not belong to either camp, giving him a chance to finally narrow the national divide, says Taras Berezovets, a political strategist in Kiev. “He’s not corrupted. He’s a world celebrity,” says Berezovets, who advised Tymoshenko during her failed run for the presidency in 2010. “Klitschko is probably the single candidate that can bridge the two parts of Ukraine.”

After last year’s parliamentary elections, his political party, UDAR (the acronym means punch in Ukrainian), holds 42 of the 450 seats in the federal parliament, and during the ongoing protests, he has tried hard not to antagonize either half of Ukraine’s divided electorate. He expressed concern when protesters toppled a monument to Vladimir Lenin, the Russian revolutionary leader, in the center of Kiev. “We need to build, not destroy,” Klitschko told a Russian cable news channel after protesters splintered the fallen statue with sledgehammer on Dec. 9. Having joined the communist Pioneers youth group during his Soviet childhood, he said that statue was “a part of my history, some of my memories.”

(MORE: Western Diplomats Are Going to Disappoint Ukraine’s Protesters)

That plays well with the older, pro-Russian voters who still feel nostalgic for the Soviet past, as does Klitschko’s occasional use of nanny-state populism. The “European standards” Ukraine is fighting for, he says, will give students a “guaranteed job” while ensuring “social assistance” for the needy. At the same time, his party brands itself as business-friendly in order to court the middle-class vote, and Klitschko’s close ties with Europe — he has lived in Germany for most of the past decade — solidify his bona fides among the pro-Western electorate.

So does his fluency in English and German, which have also made him more accessible to Western diplomats like Victoria Nuland, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State who went to Kiev last week and handed out bread and cookies to protesters in Independence Square. But his nine-year residence in Germany could turn out to be his Achilles’ heel; Berezovets, the political strategist, warns that under Ukrainian law, it could be used to disqualify him from running for President in 2015. And if he does run in those elections, Klitschko would have to work on his stumping skills, which are still far from the polish he exudes when meeting with foreign reporters.

He holds the rough equivalent of a Ph.D. degree from Kiev’s National University of Physical Fitness and Sport (thus the honorific in his nickname), but he has no experience in economics and uses boxing metaphors as a rhetorical crutch when pressed on complex issues. Asked how he would win concessions from Yanukovych, who has ignored the protesters’ demands for his ouster, Klitschko slips into ringside banter. “The President and the government pretend not to notice us,” he says. “They try to put a brave face on their bad game. In boxing this is not possible. If you have a bad game, you end up with a bad face.”

Outside the windows, the demonstrators have broken into another one of their hourly renditions of the national anthem, “Ukraine Has Not Yet Perished.” With tens of thousands of voices, still raucous after weeks of chanting, the sound is not just clear through the glass, it is palpable. Klitschko takes heart. “We will fight until victory,” he says. But with the protests now in their third week, there is no telling what that victory will look like, or what it would mean for Ukraine’s already battered economy.

39 comments
Sibir_Russia
Sibir_Russia

While Klitschko continued to urge Ukraine to surrender in the face of the European Union, Yanukovych signed mutually beneficial contracts with Russia.

Gazprom lowers gas price for Ukraine 33% to $268.5 per 1,000 cubic metres – Putin

"The Russian government made a decision to invest part of the National Welfare fund to the amount of $15 billion in Ukrainian government securities," Putin told reporters.

But Putin added that he and President Viktor Yanukovych had not discussed the idea of Kiev joining a Kremlin-led free trade bloc. "I would like to calm everyone down, today we have not discussed the issue of Ukraine joining the Customs Union at all," he added.

Galen
Galen

Great story for this man and his country. Since this was written, he has retired from boxing, and is running for president.


Wishing him and his country the best, and hopefully our country will step up big-time to help. It might take a huge man with a huge personality and seemingly intelligent, to stand up to the Russian bully.

T12
T12

no people of the Russian Empire - the USSR - Russia has not disappeared from the face of the earth. Russians are the only ones who respects the individuality of others. what I cannot say about the Anglo-Saxons

TAHKICT
TAHKICT

matio

If Ukrainians and Russians are the same, as you suggest, then how come you do not speak Ukrainian?I have love for the Russian folks, but we are not the same.We will never be russificated like the Belarusians.Unfortunately for them the commies succeeded there. You must respect our individuality.

T12
T12

Germany lost the war. USSR - winner. what are you talking about restitution? America is obliged to pay in Japan for the atomic bombing of civilian towns!

this statue is more than the statue. it is more than 70 years. she has visited many European capitals. but you spit on the  history.

TAHKICT
TAHKICT

Contrary to Klichko’s politically tactful feelings, I like the fact that that the statue of lenin was destroyed.  I’m surprised it was still standing there.  People must not forget what the commies did to Ukraine in the early 1930s.  Moscow should have been paying restitution for that genocide since the fall of communism, just like the Germans are currently paying for the crimes of their nazis.

WilliamBrovelli
WilliamBrovelli

based on your comments you don't seem very bright...nonetheless, Vitali will be leader of your corrupt country soon enough.

Calm47
Calm47

Klitschko is ignorant and stupid dummy, unable to lead even rural bath. Anyone or anything he's not leading. His stupid statements he makes himself an object of ridicule.

Sibir_Russia
Sibir_Russia

TIME

"The Russian Spirit"

Monday, June 08, 1942

The author writes: "Ярость сопротивления русских отражает новый русский дух, за которым стоит вновь обретенная промышленная и сельскохозяйственная мощь. Last June most democrats agreed with Adolf Hitler—within three months the Nazi armies would be in Moscow, and the Russian incident would be one with Norway, France and Greece. Even U.S. Communists shivered in their Russian boots, put less faith in Marshal Timoshenko, Voroshilov and Budenny than in Generals Winter, Mud and Slush. When the Germans bogged down, backsliding fellow travelers slid back, a statue to Lenin was unveiled in London, and nearly everybody sighed: The impossible has..."

 The purpose of the book by Maurice Hindus - show that the impossible was inevitable.

http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,790636,00.html

Evgeniy Burukhin
Evgeniy Burukhin

This man fluently speaks four languages and holds a promotion boxing company of his own so any doubts about his mind level are just foolish stereotypes.

matio
matio

No offense. I live in Moscow. Ukraine and Russia are one people. Millions of families separated by the border. Strike in Ukraine - is a blow to Russia. That's what this revolution is paid. Think of a nobody to ask to hold a referendum, because people do not want to europe. Do not believe your press only. Read and foreign press to get an objective picture.

matio
matio

No offense. I live in Moscow. Uraine and Russia are one people. Millions of families separated by the border. Strike in Ukraine - is a blow to Russia. That's what this revolution is paid. Think of a nobody to ask to hold a referendum, because people do not zaheochet europe. Do not believe your press only. Read and foreign press to get an objective picture.

Pedram Shak
Pedram Shak

if US made ronald Reagan basically a cowboy actor a president so why not ukraine?

Steen Chery
Steen Chery

Andrey Stefinko Mariya Stefinko ohh Darm !! Man knows how to recognize opportunity ... Smart move before he got knocked out !

makeup
makeup

Boxer Vitali Klitschko vacates heavyweight title for Ukrainian presidential run


Ukrainian opposition leader Vitali Klitschko announced on Monday he was relinquishing his WBC world heavyweight title so he can focus on his political career in Ukraine.

The 42-year-old — whose younger brother Wladimir is the WBA, IBF, WBO and IBO heavyweight champion — thanked the WBC for leaving open the opportunity for him to return to the ring by making him WBC Champion Emeritus.

However, he all but ruled out that option as he intends to play a leading role in seeing present Ukraine president Viktor Yanukovych ousted in next year’s presidential election.

“I want to thank the WBC and its president Don Jose Sulaiman for the support in our fight for democracy and freedom in the Ukraine,” Klitschko said in a statement on Fight News.com.

“It was and is a great honor to hold the WBC title and I’ve always done it with pride.

“The offer of the WBC gives me the theoretical possibility to return to the boxing ring which I cannot imagine at all to the current state.

“Right now, my full concentration is on politics in Ukraine, and I feel that the people need me there. My brother Wladimir will ensure more sporting success and I will – as always – support him as much as he currently supports me in my political fight.”

The WBC also issued a statement saying that by appointing him Emeritus Champion they were leaving the way open for him to return should he wish to.

“The Board Meeting of the WBC and its president Jose Sulaiman have decided to appoint Vitali Klitschko (44-2, 40 KOs) as Champion Emeritus,” read the statement.

“The WBC gave its full support to Vitali Klitschko in his political activities in his home country Ukraine and understands that he is unable to defend his title inside the ring in the foreseeable future.

“Therefore the WBC appointed Klitschko Champion Emeritus and thus gives him the opportunity to decide at a later point whether he wants to resign from professional boxing or fight for the WBC heavyweight title again.”

Having last lost more than a decade ago to Britain’s Lennox Lewis  makeup brushes online, “Dr Ironfist” has earned knock-outs in 41 of his 45 victories during 47 professional fights with just two defeats.

Vitali is a three-time heavyweight world champion and last fought in September 2012 when he beat Germany’s Manuel Charr.

However, his political career has become more of a priority in recent times and in October he announced a bid to be elected president next year.

But his soaring political ambitions were dealt an immediate blow by the adoption of a legal amendment barring people who spend much of their time living or working abroad from running for president.

Klitschko boxes and has residency status in Germany.

But he still insists that the authorities have no reason to deny him participation in the polls, accusing Yanukovych of trying to remove his main rivals from politics.

“He has put one of his opponent in prison and the other he wants to remove (from the polls),” Klitschko said in November in reference to himself and his jailed ally Yulia Tymoshenko Women Snow Boots ., a former prime minister and fierce Yanukovych foe.

President Yanukovych’s decision to scrap key agreements with the EU in November and police violence against protesters sparked the largest demonstrations in the ex-Soviet country since the 2004 pro-democracy Orange Revolution.

http://www.rawstory.com/rs/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Head-of-the-Ukrainian-UDAR-Punch-party-Vitali-Klitshchko-addresses-an-opposition-rally-in-Independence-Square-in-Kiev-on-Dec.-16-2013-AFP.jpg

michael.f.passe
michael.f.passe

Does this mean people are going to start giving a bleep about the Heavyweight Champion again?

igorgleb
igorgleb

Why not to hold a plebiscit in Ukrayne???  To join EU has many set-backs too! I know that many in Portugal consider that it was a mistake to have joined EU because they lost their competitive advantages of producing at lower costs!! The real adavantage is for the brigther to become British our Germans for good ( and they sederve it too), buit their countries will fell the human losses!!! Igor in Brazil ( grand mother Ukraynian, grand father Russian)

Sibir_Russia
Sibir_Russia

@Calm47
"His stupid statements he makes himself an object of ridicule."

Onkel_Karl 12.12.2012 (!)    19:37von

Noch so ein Clown für den Westen,die Partei von Klitchko besteht aus "verbrannten"Politikern aus allen Lagern...jeder der irgendwann mal erwischt und rausgeworfen wurde ist jetzt bei UDAR.
Ex korrupte Beamte aus der Ära Orange Rev.,nur Name Klitchko zieht noch...aber wie gesagt,ein Klitchko der sein 20 Jahren in Deutschland und USA gelebt hat soll jetzt Ukraine retten...lächerlich,die Menschen in der Ukraine wollen keine Spaltung sondern Stabilität...
http://forum.spiegel.de/f22/ukraine-vitali-klitschko-gewinnt-wahl-zum-fraktionschef-77868.html


Galen
Galen

@Calm47 


Just wait and see, your insults will hit you back in the face.

Galen
Galen

@matio 



Just because you are so-called the same, there is nothing wrong with being a part of Europe and going a different direction then the Russian dictator!

TAHKICT
TAHKICT

@matio

If Ukrainians and Russians are the same, as you suggest, then how come you do not speak Ukrainian?I have love for the Russian folks, but we are not the same.We will never be russificated like the Belarusians.Unfortunately for them the commies succeeded there. You must respect our individuality.

Calm47
Calm47

@Galen@Calm47This is not abuse. This can and bitter, but the reality. He's a great boxer. But he is a nonentity as a politician

matio
matio

@TAHKICT@matioSincerely: Ukrainians at home speak Russian. Several years ago, at the state level, a ban on the use of Russian as on television and in the government. However, the main Russian life.
Kiev also the cradle of Russian civilization.

Sibir_Russia
Sibir_Russia

@Calm47@Galen  

Party Klitschko «UDAR» was started by the German Konrad Adenauer Foundation

This writes the German newspaper Junge Wel.
Klitschko  represents the interests of Germany to the detriment of Ukraine.

Merkel will in Kiew mitmischen Von Werner Pirker

Die Unverfrorenheit, mit der sich die deutsche Kanzlerin Angela Merkel in anderer Länder Angelegenheiten einmischt, ist nahezu beispiellos. Das äußert sich in ihrem absolutistischen Machtgehabe gegenüber den von der Euro-Krise besonders hart betroffenen Ländern und das demonstriert sie nun auch gegenüber der Ukraine, deren künftige Entwicklung sie von Berlin aus zu steuern gedenkt. Zu diesem Zweck soll laut Spiegel-Informationen der ukrainische Profiboxer Witali Klitschko zum »neuen starken Mann« in Kiew aufgebaut werden.

Der Quereinsteiger, dessen Karriere als Boxer überwiegend in Deutschland, das nach wie vor seinen Lebensmittelpunkt bildet, und kaum in der Ukraine stattfand, ist Berlins Mann in Kiew. Seine Partei UDAR (Ukrainische Allianz für demokratische Reformen, ukr./russ. auch für Schlag) ist von der Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung ins Leben gerufen worden. Dort werden die von Klitschko abgesonderten politischen Phrasen vorformuliert. Die »proeuropäische Orientierung« der Schlägertruppe entspricht dem Bedürfnis der deutschen Eliten nach Ostexpansion, nach Eingliederung der Ukraine in den deutschen Hegemonialbereich.

http://www.jungewelt.de/2013/12-10/064.php?sstr=konrad

 

matio
matio

@TAHKICTNo nation Ukrainian. Please include the head. There is a very good example - the church as a product of people's identity. From time immemorial through blood and pain bloody Soviet tyranny was to share the fate of his people, the Russian Orthodox Church. Look back to what is taught in school history. One church, one faith, one baptism!! One people.

Дмитрий
Дмитрий

@TAHKICT  

For many citizens of Ukraine Ukrainian language - secondary. East, Crimea and the center speaks surzhik or Russian. Even the western part of Ukraine has a "different" Ukrainian language, depending on whether - where more Poles left trace. In which language speaks the Prime Minister? 

And "sovets" did not do much forcibly Russification in Ukraine. Birth certificate, school leaving certificate in my father's record both in Ukrainian and Russian. If commies wish to russifyi national republics, then for 70 years in the USSR (2-3 generations) native language no one would know. and nothing would not stop them. but almost all republics retained their languages​​. many books were published in the native languages ​​of the Soviet republics, and in schools were taught national languages.

TAHKICT
TAHKICT

@matio @TAHKICT

For most Ukrainians Russian is a second language, mainly due to the soviet occupation.Those who do not speak Ukrainian were russificated by the soviets by methods of expulsion, such as forced migration. Just like what happened to the Tatars in the now Ukrainian Crimean region. You feel me?