Euromaidan, Ukraine: Who is vitali Klitschko?

Article published on Feb. 10, 2014
Article published on Feb. 10, 2014

World heavy weight boxing 'champion emeritus' Vitali Klitschko has taken up politics during his semi-retirement from boxing. But this is no pensioner's quiet life he's leading. Klitschko is at the forefront of anti-government protests in Kiev. Yanukovych seems ever-more likely to fall. Klitschko seems ever-more likely to play a significant role in  government. But who is Klitschko exactly?

The vi­o­lence is mount­ing in Ukraine. More and more gov­ern­ment of­fices are being oc­cu­pied. Build­ings are burn­ing. Molo­tov cock­tails are fly­ing. Pro­tes­tors are dying. And President Viktor Yanukovych’s grip on power is be­com­ing ever weaker. He has of­fered con­ces­sions, propos­ing the role of prime min­is­ter to Ar­seniy Yat­senyuk of the 'Fatherland' Party and deputy to Vi­tali Kl­itschko who heads his own aptly named party UDAR (punch). But Yat­senyuk and Kl­itschko per­ceive these con­ces­sions as a cun­ning at­tempt to cas­trate the ris­ing forces of change. They will ac­cept noth­ing less than Yanukovych’s res­ig­na­tion and new elec­tions, elec­tions which Vi­tali Kl­itschko looks well placed to win. But who is Kl­itschko re­ally? How has he en­joyed such a me­te­oric rise in Ukrain­ian pol­i­tics?

As the first box­ing world cham­pion to hold a de­gree, Kl­itschko’s com­bi­na­tion of brains and brawn earned him the title ‘Dr. Iron­fist’.  6ft 7in tall and weigh­ing 17 stone, he is a ver­i­ta­ble beast. He was never knocked out and won 45 of his 47 pro­fes­sional fights. Vi­o­lence pro­vides a use­ful point of com­par­i­son be­tween Kl­itschko and his rival Pres­i­dent Yanukovych. Kl­itschko's fight­ing tem­pera­ment ex­udes ma­tu­rity, calm and com­pas­sion. After his first knock­out vic­tory against Brit, Richard Vince in 1994 he sought out the de­feated fighter's fam­ily to apol­o­gise, vow­ing his own fam­ily would never at­tend his fights. His fi­nesse in the ring, his decade of world heavy weight dom­i­nance and his com­mend­able sports­man­ship have long been a source of Ukrain­ian na­tional pride.

Yanukovych, on the other hand, has a his­tory of vi­o­lence that is so sor­did and shame­ful you won­der how he is even al­lowed to par­tic­i­pate in pol­i­tics. In 1967 Yanukovych was con­victed to three years in prison for rob­bing a man his friends had punched un­con­scious. Yanukovych was im­pris­oned again in 1969, sen­tenced to two years for his role in a drunken brawl. Ac­cu­sa­tions that Yanukovych was in­volved in the gang rape and beat­ing of a woman in Enakieve in the 1970s have not been proven but they con­tribute to his murky, tainted past.

Kl­itschko’s PhD sets him apart, not only from other box­ers, but also from other politi­cians. None more so than the pres­i­dent he his try­ing to top­ple: ed­u­ca­tion pro­vides an­other ex­cel­lent point of com­par­i­son be­tween the two. Kl­itschko’s PhD earned him the en­dear­ing nick­name Dr. Iron Fist. Yanukovych’s mas­ters in in­ter­na­tional law and his PhD in eco­nom­ics have been noth­ing but a thorn in his side, namely because they are falsified. He al­legedly ob­tained both cer­tifi­cates whilst work­ing full time as gov­er­nor of Donetsk. His press sec­re­tary Ivanesko could not even name the uni­ver­sity where he stud­ied, al­though he was sure it was some­where in Donetsk. ‘He even headed a de­part­ment there and gave lec­tures,’ Ivanesko claims.

Pol­i­tics in Ukraine has largely been defined by a dislocation be­tween words and ac­tion. The last few decades have been dominated by false dawns. The eu­pho­ria of in­de­pen­dence in 1991 soon gave way to de­spair as years of po­lit­i­cal chaos, so­cial de­pri­va­tion and eco­nomic ruin en­sued. The 2004 Or­ange Rev­o­lu­tion saw the coun­try glow­ing with op­ti­mism, but this was quickly ex­tin­guished as a rev­o­lu­tion that promised unity pro­duced a pres­i­dency of in-fight­ing and dis­in­te­gra­tion. Viktor Yushchenko turned op­ti­mism sour by fail­ing to tackle en­demic cor­rup­tion, over­see­ing gas dis­putes with Rus­sia that saw sup­plies cut off in the depths of win­ter and en­gag­ing in po­lit­i­cally paralysing squab­bles with his Prime Min­is­ter Yulia Ty­moshenko. Kl­itschko’s cur­rent ally-cum rival, Ar­seniy Yat­senyuk, is sim­i­larly tainted by the past, hav­ing served as Min­is­ter of Econ­omy under Yuschenko.

The ex­tent of this dis­ap­point­ment was epit­o­mised by the re­mark­able po­lit­i­cal re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion of Vik­tor Yanukovych. In 2004, Yanukovych was the anti-hero of the Or­ange Rev­o­lu­tion, the pariah fraud­u­lently in­stalled by Rus­sia’s in­ter­fer­ence. He was top­pled by the will of the peo­ple when mil­lions took to the streets. In 2010, the pariah re­turned and Yanukovych van­quished Ty­moshenko in the elec­tions.

Kl­itschko is some­times crit­i­cised for his lack of po­lit­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence, but this is per­haps his great­est asset. He is un­tainted by the treach­ery and en­demic cor­rup­tion that stains ex­pe­ri­enced politi­cians who are in­evitably im­pli­cated in the chaos of the last decade. He has stayed clear of petty political squabbles and embarassing parliamentary fist fights. Kl­itschko- in the mid­dle of a par­lia­men­tary brawl, head and shoul­ders above the rest, calm and col­lected, his fear­some fists sheaved de­spite the temp­ta­tion to pul­verise the puerile politi­cians around him; it’s an image that strikes a chord with vot­ers.

Ukraine could be de­scribed as a a schiz­o­phrenic coun­try, split, as it is, roughly half and half be­tween Russ­ian speak­ers in the east and Ukrain­ian speak­ers in the west. Since vot­ing is typ­i­cally aligned with lin­guis­tic ge­og­ra­phy, Kl­itschko’s ap­peal im­pres­sively tra­verses these tra­di­tional bound­aries. The same cer­tainly can­not be said for the cur­rent Russ­ian-speak­ing pres­i­dent Vik­tor Yanukovych. Yanukovych’s sup­port base lies in the Russ­ian speak­ing East and South re­gions of Ukraine. He has strug­gled with the Ukrain­ian lan­guage through­out his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer and his nu­mer­ous gaffes serve to high­light the dif­fi­culty of uni­fy­ing a coun­try that is so di­vided. Vis­it­ing the Ukrain­ian-speak­ing city of Lvov dur­ing his 2010 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, a slip of the tongue saw Yanukovych con­fuse geno­cide and gene-pool and con­grat­u­late the lo­cals on hav­ing the best geno­cide in the coun­try. Kl­itschko, on the other hand, speaks both Russ­ian and Ukrain­ian. Al­though he ex­tols the ben­e­fits of closer in­te­gra­tion with the EU, he has been care­ful not to alien­ate the Russ­ian-speak­ing east like Yushchenko and Ty­moshenko. His diplo­macy is not only a sen­si­ble ploy from his own per­spec­tive, but it is also promis­ing for Ukraine that this po­ten­tial pres­i­dent is so con­cil­ia­tory in a coun­try that has be­come ac­cus­tomed to po­lar­is­ing politi­cians.

The sit­u­a­tion in Ukraine is shift­ing every hour. Yanukovych is wa­ver­ing, re­fus­ing to en­gage with the op­po­si­tion, be­fore sud­denly of­fer­ing them gov­ern­ment po­si­tions on Saturday. The Min­istry of Jus­tice has been oc­cu­pied. Jus­tice Min­is­ter, Olena Lukash, has threat­ened to in­tro­duce a state of emer­gency. One pro­tes­tor told re­porters, ‘The seizure of the Min­istry of Jus­tice is a sym­bolic act of the peo­ple of the up­ris­ing. Now, these au­thor­i­ties are stripped of jus­tice.’ It is likely that if Lukash calls a state of emer­gency, many of the troops and po­lice called in to re­store order would side with the sen­ti­ments of the afore­men­tioned pro­tes­tor. Call­ing a state of emer­gency could catal­yse the dis­in­te­gra­tion of the Yanukovych regime. Yanukovych may have some more low blows in his locker, but so far Dr. Iron Fist’s com­po­sure and sin­cer­ity have proved unstoppable forces.