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Euromaidan, Ukraine: Who is vitali Klitschko?

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Joel Lewin


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.

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