Boxer Vitaly Klitschko emerges as political contender in Ukraine crisis

Opposition figure Vitaly Klitschko is making his presence felt despite an awkward public style

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 December, 2013, 10:23pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 December, 2013, 4:48am

Urbane liberals are joining black-booted skinheads to protest on the streets of Kiev, 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 Yanukovych after he ditched a trade pact with the European Union to revive economic ties with former Soviet master Moscow.

"I'd stand behind Klitschko," said Grigory Parkhomenko, a 54-year-old retired factory worker at Kiev'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 two-metre tall 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 Yanukovych's leadership.

The outpouring of anger at Yanukovych'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 Yuliya Tymoshenko, whose electric personality and fiery speeches kept tens of thousands out in the streets through the bitterly cold winter of 2004-2005.

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 out tens of thousands on to the streets over Yanukovych'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 hardline 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 as the field commander of the protests. That might not sit well though with Yatsenyuk, 39, the most tested politician of the three.

"Yatsenyuk is getting very nervous about the competition from Klitschko. He feels he is tugging the blanket to himself," said analyst Volodymyr Fesenko.