News / Europe

Boxing Champ Klitschko Emerges as Contender in Ukrainian Crisis

Ukrainian lawmaker and chairman of the Ukrainian opposition party Udar (Punch), WBC heavyweight boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko addresses supporters during a rally at the central Independence square in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Monday, Dec. 2, 2013.
Ukrainian lawmaker and chairman of the Ukrainian opposition party Udar (Punch), WBC heavyweight boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko addresses supporters during a rally at the central Independence square in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Monday, Dec. 2, 2013.
Reuters
Urbane liberals are joining black-booted skinheads to protest on the streets of Kyiv, but if the Orange Revolution of nine years ago is to be repeated, they need a leader to unite them.
 
Enter Vitaly Klitschko, a towering world boxing champion with a doctorate in sports science, who is looking increasingly like the opposition's most powerful contender.
 
Protesters and commentators saw Klitschko emerging on Tuesday as a leader-in-waiting as the opposition digs in to unseat President Viktor Yanukovich after he ditched a trade pact with the European Union to revive economic ties with former its Soviet master, Russia.
 
“I'd stand behind Klitschko,” said Grigory Parkhomenko, a 54-year-old retired factory worker at Kyiv's 'opposition-occupied' city hall.
 
“He's earned his fortune with his hands, so he doesn't need to steal from the people.”
 
Klitschko, the 6’7” World Boxing Council heavyweight champion known as “Dr. Ironfist” because of his erudition, is sharing the stage with a bespectacled lawyer who frets about his poor public image and a surgeon who leads a combustible far-right nationalist group in an unlikely “troika” mounting a street challenge to Yanukovich's leadership.
 
The outpouring of anger at Yanukovich's rejection last month of a landmark accord to deepen ties with the European Union echoes public anger at his fraudulent election victory in 2004, when mass protests overturned the result and, with it, Ukraine's post-Soviet order.
 
The leader then was Yulia Tymoshenko, whose electric personality and fiery speeches kept tens of thousands out in the streets through the bitterly cold winter of 2004-5.
 
With Tymoshenko in jail, the disparate opposition alliance faces a challenge in maintaining momentum, and unity.
 
For successive weekends, calls by Klitschko, former economy minister Arseny Yatsenyuk and Oleh Tyahnybok, the leader of the nationalist Svoboda (Freedom) party, have brought tens of thousands out on to the streets over Yanukovich's policy U-turn away from the West back towards Russia.
 
Tymoshenko's supporters would naturally gravitate to her successor as party leader, Yatsenyuk, but may find common cause and ideology with Klitschko, too. They are unlikely to see much hope in the hard-line nationalists.
 
Klitschko benefits from a perception he is uncorrupted, not a product of the discredited Ukrainian political system but a national hero who lived abroad and made a fortune winning titles with his pile-driving punch.
 
In sport, he and younger brother Vladimir have towered over boxing for years. Despite being 42, he still holds one of the four world heavyweight crowns, while Vladimir holds the other three. Vitaly last defended his crown last year, defeating a German challenger in a fight stopped after four rounds.
 
Despite an awkward public style, Klitschko exudes a quiet strength that plays well in Ukraine. He is emerging increasingly as the field commander of the protests and could be a common candidate to take on Yanukovich.
 
‘Street Leader’
 
That might not sit well though with Yatsenyuk, 39, the most tested politician of the three, who took over Tymoshenko's party in parliament and has led the pressure for her release for months.
 
“Yatsenyuk is getting very nervous about the competition from Klitschko. He feels he is tugging the blanket to himself,” said independent analyst Volodymyr Fesenko.
 
“The authority of Klitschko is growing. He has emerged as a street leader. He led the crowd and people followed him. It is the emergence of charisma - it is not everybody the crowds will follow,” he said.
 
Yatsenyuk and Klitschko's liberal agendas starkly differ from the Ukrainian nationalism of Tyahnybok's Svoboda, with its heavy anti-Russian overtones. Svoboda is seen by many Ukrainians as anti-Semitic and homophobic, which Tyahnybok denies.
 
People on Kyiv's Independence Square last Sunday reacted with unease when Svoboda supporters hoisted their standard - blue bearing a yellow three-fingered hand - onto the peak of the festive New Year tree, alongside the national flag.
 
Equally, the nationalists, many of them students from the Ukrainian-speaking west and raised on a diet of Ukrainian patriotism and anti-Soviet feeling, have little regard for, say, Yatsenyuk, a man who struggles with his personal image of an aloof intellectual.
 
Asked a year ago by the Kyiv Post newspaper why he felt he had that image, he replied dryly, “because I'm bald and wear glasses.”
 
However, the reality is that both Yatsenyuk and Klitschko rely heavily on support from the shock troops that Svoboda's superior organization can put onto the squares of the country.
 
“There is hidden tension. There are contradictions and these contradictions are growing stronger… there are sharp and tough arguments going on inside the 'troika',” said Fesenko.
 
United by a Goal
 
“When a dog protects a house, it has to be mean,” said Sergei Ishcenko, a 53-year-old nationalist protester. “That's what we nationalists are. We are the ones who are protecting our own land and our own people,” he explained.
 
The protesters, for now, play down their differences.
 
“The nationalists can seem quite radical, or they may regard us as too moderate, but what is important is that we are all fighting for one Ukraine right now and we are fighting to free it from the current powers,” said Marina Ivanyuk, 18, a student of foreign relations at Kyiv State University. “After that we can sort out our differences.”
 
The Yanukovich camp appear to have sensed that Klitschko is the main threat and have moved to try to neutralize him, challenging his right to run for the presidency because of the years he has spent living in Germany away from Ukraine.
 
“Any serious split in their ranks will be a defeat for what is going on in the streets,” said Fesenko, the analyst. “The issue of their unity is an issue of survival for the opposition.”

You May Like

Lesotho Faces New Round of Violence, Political Crisis

Brutal killing of military officer has sent former leaders back into S. Africa where they're watching anxiously as regional officials head in to try to restore peace More

Video US Diplomat Expects Adoption of Bosnian Massacre Anniversary Resolution

Samantha Power says there's broad consensus about killings in Bosnia's war, but Russia calls resolution 'divisive,' backs UN countermeasure More

UN Report Exposes Widespread Boko Haram Atrocities

Damning report graphically details pattern of vicious, widespread atrocities committed by Islamist militants More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountaini
X
July 02, 2015 4:10 AM
Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountain

Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Xenophobia Victims in South Africa Flee Violence, Then Return

Many Malawians fled South Africa early this year after xenophobic attacks on African immigrants. But many quickly found life was no better at home and have returned to South Africa – often illegally and without jobs, and facing the tough task of having to start over. Lameck Masina and Anita Powell file from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video US Silica Sand Mining Surge Worries Illinois Residents, Businesses

Increased domestic U.S. oil and gas production, thanks to advances known as “fracking,” has created a boom for other industries supporting that extraction. Demand for silica sand, used in fracking, could triple over the next five years. In the Midwest state of Illinois, people living near the mines are worried about how increased silica sand mining will affect their businesses and their health. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more in this first of a series of reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Texas Defies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Texas state officials have criticized the US Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. The attorney general of Texas says last week's decision did not overrule constitutional "rights of religious liberty," and therefore officials performing wedding services can refuse to perform them for same-sex couples if it is against their religious beliefs. Zlatica Hoke reports on the controversy.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.

VOA Blogs