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.