KIEV, Ukraine – Towering over his fellow protest leaders, Vitali Klitschko, the reigning world heavyweight boxing champion, has emerged as Ukraine’s most popular opposition figure and has ambitions to become its next president.
Thanks to his sports-hero status and reputation as a pro-Western politician untainted by Ukraine’s frequent corruption scandals, the 6-foot 7-inch Klitschko has surpassed jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko in opinion polls.
As massive anti-government protests continue to grip Ukraine, the 42-year-old boxer-turned-politician is urging his countrymen to continue their fight to turn this ex-Soviet republic into a genuine Western democracy.
“This is not a revolution. It is a peaceful protest that demands justice,” Klitschko told the Associated Press in an interview Wednesday. “The people are not defending political interests. They are defending the idea of living in a civilized country.”
Despite earning a doctorate in sports science, Klitschko has had to fight a stereotype of being intellectually unfit to run this economically troubled nation of 46 million.
Having been raised – like many Ukrainians – in a Russian-speaking family, Klitschko only recently learned Ukrainian and sometimes struggles to find the right word. Still, he appeals to many Ukrainians with his air of sincerity and his image as a handsome tough guy ready to defend his compatriots.
“He is a national hero and comes across as being decent,” said Andreas Umland, assistant professor of European studies at the Kyiv Mohyla Academy.
Klitschko was one of only a few opposition politicians who tried to stop several hundred radical protesters from storming President Viktor Yanukovych’s office during a demonstration Sunday that drew hundreds of thousands to the streets of the capital, Kiev. As the boxer called for peace, the jubilant crowd chanted his name.
The angry protests were sparked by the president’s abrupt decision last month to ditch a political and economic treaty with the 28-nation European Union in favor of closer economic ties with Russia, which had threatened Ukraine with trade consequences if the country signed the EU deal.
On Wednesday, his party joined two other opposition parties in blockading the Ukrainian parliament as part of a nationwide strike.
Klitschko made his first foray into politics during the country’s 2004 Orange Revolution, the mass protests that led to the annulment of Yanukovych’s fraud-tainted presidential win and ushered in a pro-Western government. Fresh from a victory in the ring in the United States, Klitschko flew to Kiev and appeared in the heart of those protests wearing an orange scarf, the symbol of the revolution.
After two failed attempts to be elected mayor of Kiev, Klitschko entered national politics last year when his pro-Western Udar party – Punch in English – finished a strong third in the parliamentary election, running on a reform and anti-corruption platform.