Foreign Policy talks to boxing legend and Ukrainian opposition figure Vitali Klitschko about the "Euromaidan" protests and his country's political future.
- By Harriet SalemHarriet Salem is a Belgrade-based journalist covering the Balkans and Eastern Europe.
KIEV — In a sparsely furnished backroom of a building in the heart of Ukraine’s capital, a silhouetted figure of gigantic proportions gazes out a window. Vitali Klitschko, world-champion heavyweight boxer turned politician, is the leader of the Ukrainian opposition party United Democratic Alliance for Reform (UDAR). The party’s acronym means "punch" in Ukrainian, and the room where Klitschko is standing, perched above Kiev’s Independence Square, is part of the headquarters he’s using to wage a heated political fight. "I have been working almost constantly since this started," Klitschko says, referring to the scene outside the window: anti-government protests, now in their fifth week in Kiev.
Public discontent has erupted over Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s turn away from Europe in favor of bolstering ties with Russia. In November, Yanukovych announced that he would not sign the long-awaited European Association Agreement trade deal, later opting for a $15 billion loan and reduced gas-price agreement with Vladimir Putin. The deal, critics say, leaves Ukraine at the mercy of Moscow’s whims.
Independence Square — known locally as Maidan Nezalezhnostiis — is abuzz with protest activity against Yanukovych. Speeches and live music blare from loud speakers, food is cooked over campfires, and the Ukrainian flag hangs in every available corner. Were it not for the tall barricades and security figures clad in ski masks guarding the square’s perimeter, the revelry could easily be mistaken for a party.
According to Ukraine’s opposition, including Klitschko, the protests are the beginning of a peaceful revolution that will eventually topple Yanukovych’s government. At the demonstrations’ peak, more than 200,000 people were reportedly participating. But now, as winter temperatures drop below freezing, the holiday season gets into full swing, and Yanukovych shows no signs of giving in, the number of protesters in the streets is slowly dwindling.
True to form, Klitschko, who has never been knocked out in a professional boxing match, says he isn’t throwing in the towel. He recently called Yanukovych his "personal rival" and challenged the president to meet him "in the ring" — that is, as opponents in early elections. Klitschko has also given up his World Boxing Council title to focus on politics.
On Dec. 22, Foreign Policy spoke to Klitschko, considered Ukraine’s most popular politician, about his country’s would-be revolution. What will it take to deliver Yanukovych a final blow?
An edited transcript of the interview is below.
FP: Why is this protest important to Ukraine?
VK: Now people in this square understand that they have power in their hands and the opportunity to change the situation in our country. Our country is very young, and this is a very important step, that every citizen is aware that his future depends just on him.
FP: What is the role of Europe in this protest?
VK: Ukraine is Europe, geographically, historically. It has a shared mentality. But we are very far away in terms of our standards of life. In this way, Europe is a good example for our country, of democracy, human rights, and the economy. Now we are faced with a decision of whether to change or be destroyed.
FP: Did the European Union put enough on the table to tempt Yanukovych away from Russia?
VK: Of course it was enough. But the Ukrainian government and president are not motivated to sign it, to make changes. Ukraine is famed as the most corrupt country in Europe. Signing the Association Agreement would be a step toward tackling this. But, of course, the people in power here benefit from the status quo. They do not want to sign, they will not sign.
FP: The Euromaidan protests, as they’ve become known, are now entering the fifth week, but the number of people here is falling. What is the long-term strategy of the opposition?
VK: We understand that to make real reforms, we must topple the whole system. How do we do that? Only with elections is this possible, both presidential and parliamentary. The government is responsible for destroying European integration. They are responsible for this deep political and economic crisis in Ukraine, and they must step down.
FP: But it does not appear likely that the government will resign. What is the opposition’s next move?
VK: We will stay here [in the square]. We will continue pressuring. Almost 90 percent of people say that Ukraine is going in the wrong direction. This is a very clear indication they do not believe in our government anymore.
FP: At today’s rally, it was announced that a nationwide Maidan civil movement had been started. Is this a signal that protesters will be leaving Independence Square?
VK: Outside you see a celebration. Many people are tired and will return to their families for the festive season, but they carry the spirit of these protests with them in their hearts and minds. Many people will also stay here during Christmas and New Year. I will be here with my family. The protest will continue.
FP: Did the opposition miss an opportunity to topple the government at the beginning of the protests when momentum was greater?
VK: It’s difficult to say. Our demonstration is peaceful. Some people say we must attack the government, to attack the administration. We can do it, but it would be bloody and brutal. Our goal is to do this properly, through the constitution. We cannot say that the moment is missed, because [at] any moment, millions of people can come on to the street.
FP: Has the opposition suffered as a result of not having one leader at its helm?
VK: We now understand the Ukraine government has huge resources available to them: the media, the administration, the police. In order to win this battle, we have to unite behind one representative.
FP: And is that person you?
VK: My answer is not important. This is for the Ukrainian people to decide. We will see what the polls say.
FP: The opposition is drawn from a very diverse range of political views. How do you feel about working with a party like Svoboda, which has expressed extreme nationalist and anti-Semitic views?
VK: We are a different party. We have a different ideology, different electoral support. What we have in common is that we have the same enemy — the government — and the same goal: We see our country’s future as being in the European Union. It is very important that every Ukrainian person loves their country, and will fight for their country. But my vision is not nationalistic or anti-Semitic.
FP: What skills from your boxing career are you bringing to this fight?
VK: Discipline. You need to see the goal and work endlessly toward that, to never give up.
FP: What’s a dirtier fight, Ukrainian politics or boxing?
VK: The answer to this is clear. In boxing, you have rules and, if you break them, then you are disqualified. This is not the case with Ukrainian politics. Here you must still fight, but there are no rules to the game. Our aim now is to bring in these rules, to politics and to economics, to enable a fair fight.