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

Australia-Cambodia Resettlement Agreement Raises Concerns

Agreement calls for Cambodia to accept refugees in return for $35 million in aid and reflects Australia’s harder line approach towards asylum seekers and refugees More

India Looks to Become Arms Supplier Instead of Buyer

US hopes India can become alternative to China for countries looking to buy weapons, but experts question growth potential of Indian arms industry More

Earth Day Concert, Rally Draws Thousands in Washington

President Obama also took up the issue Saturday in his weekly address, saying there 'no greater threat to our planet than climate change' More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Are Energy Needs Putting Thailand's Natural Beauty at Risk?i
X
Steve Sandford
April 17, 2015 12:50 AM
Thailand's appetite for more electricity has led to the construction of new dams along the Mekong River to the north and new coal plants near the country's famous beaches in the south. A proposed coal plant in a so-called "green zone" has touched off a debate. VOA's Steve Sandford reports.
Video

Video Are Energy Needs Putting Thailand's Natural Beauty at Risk?

Thailand's appetite for more electricity has led to the construction of new dams along the Mekong River to the north and new coal plants near the country's famous beaches in the south. A proposed coal plant in a so-called "green zone" has touched off a debate. VOA's Steve Sandford reports.
Video

Video Overwhelmed by Migrants, Italy Mulls Military Action to Stabilize Libya

Thousands more migrants have arrived on the southern shores of Italy from North Africa in the past two days. Authorities say they expect the total number of arrivals this year to far exceed previous levels, and the government has said military action in Libya might be necessary to stem the flow. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Putin Accuses Kyiv of ‘Cutting Off’ Eastern Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his annual televised call-in program, again denied there were any Russian troops fighting in Ukraine. He also said the West was trying to ‘contain’ Russia with sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports on reactions to the president’s four-hour TV appearance.
Video

Video Eye Contact Secures Dog's Place in Human Heart

Dogs serve in the military, work with police and assist the disabled, and have been by our side for thousands of years serving as companions and loyal friends. We love them. They love us in return. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports on a new study that looks at the bio-chemical bond that cements that human-canine connection.
Video

Video Ukrainian Volunteers Search for Bodies of Missing Soldiers

As the cease-fire becomes more fragile in eastern Ukraine, a team of volunteer body collectors travels to the small village of Savur Mohyla in the what pro-Russian separatists call the Donetsk Peoples Republic - to retrieve bodies of fallen Ukrainian servicemen from rebel-held territories. Adam Bailes traveled with the team and has this report.
Video

Video Xenophobic Violence Sweeps South Africa

South Africa, long a haven for African immigrants, has been experiencing the worst xenophobic violence in years, with at least five people killed and hundreds displaced in recent weeks. From Johannesburg, VOA’s Anita Powell brings us this report.
Video

Video Sierra Leone President Koroma Bemoans Ebola Impact on Economy

In an interview with VOA's Shaka Ssali on Wednesday, President Ernest Koroma said the outbreak undermined his government’s efforts to boost and restructure the economy after years of civil war.
Video

Video Protester Lands Gyrocopter on Capitol Lawn

A 61-year-old mailman from Florida landed a small aircraft on the Capitol lawn in Washington to bring attention to campaign finance reform and what he says is government corruption. Wednesday's incident was one in a string of security breaches on U.S. government property. Zlatica Hoke reports the gyrocopter landing violated a no-fly zone.
Video

Video Apollo 13, NASA's 'Successful Failure,' Remembered

The Apollo 13 mission in 1970 was supposed to be NASA's third manned trip to the moon, but it became much more. On the flight's 45th anniversary, astronauts and flight directors gathered at Chicago's Adler Planetarium to talk about how the aborted mission changed manned spaceflight and continues to influence space exploration today. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video Badly Burned Ukrainian Boy Bravely Fights Back

A 9-year-old Ukrainian boy has returned to his native country after intensive treatment in the United States for life-threatening burns. Volodia Bubela, burned in a house fire almost a year ago, battled back at a Boston hospital, impressing doctors with his bravery. Faith Lapidus narrates this report from VOA's Tetiana Kharchenko.
Video

Video US Maternity Leave Benefits Much Less Than Many Countries

It was almost 20 years ago that representatives of 189 countries met at a UN conference in Beijing and adopted a plan of action to achieve gender equality around the world. Now, two decades later, the University of California Los Angeles World Policy Analysis Center has issued a report examining what the Beijing Platform for Action has achieved. From Los Angeles, Elizabeth Lee has more.
Video

Video Endangered Hawaiian Birds Get Second Chance

Of the world's nearly 9,900 bird species, 13 percent are threatened with extinction, according to BirdLife International. Among them are two Hawaiian honeycreepers - tiny birds that live in the forest canopy, and, as the name implies, survive on nectar from tropical flowers. Scientists at the San Diego Zoo report they have managed to hatch half a dozen of their chicks in captivity, raising hopes that the birds will flutter back from the brink of extinction. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Exhibit Brings Renaissance Master Out of the Shadows

The National Gallery of Art in Washington has raised the curtain on one of the most intriguing painters of the High Renaissance. Mostly ignored after his death in the early 1500s, Italian master Piero di Cosimo is now claiming his place alongside the best-known artists of the period. VOA’s Ardita Dunellari reports.
Video

Video Sidemen to Famous Blues Artists Record Their Own CD

Legendary blues singer BB King was briefly hospitalized last week and the 87-year-old “King of the Blues” may not be touring much anymore. But some of the musicians who have played with him and other blues legends have now released their own CD in an attempt to pass the torch to younger fans... and put their own talents out front as well. VOA’s Greg Flakus has followed this project over the past year and filed this report from Houston.
Video

Video Iran-Saudi Rivalry Is Stoking Conflict in Yemen

Iran has proposed a peace plan to end the conflict in Yemen, but the idea has received little support from regional rivals like Saudi Arabia. They accuse Tehran of backing the Houthi rebels, who have forced Yemen’s president to flee to Riyadh, and have taken over swaths of Yemen. As Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA, analysts say the conflict is being fueled by the Sunni-Shia rivalry between the two regional powers.

VOA Blogs