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Exclusive Interview: Kiev’s Mayor On Corruption, Gazprom, And Dirty Politics

In an exclusive interview with Foreign Policy, Vitali Klitschko unveils his vision for a new Kiev.

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During his boxing days, Kiev Mayor Vitali Klitschko was known as “Dr. Ironfist,” a nod toward the towering man’s combination of brain and brawn. (He holds an honorary doctorate from the National Agricultural University in Kiev.) At 6’6” and built like a Soviet-era tank, the former World Boxing Organization heavyweight champion looks like he should be working security at the door of the luxury Georgetown hotel at which Foreign Policy met him for an interview this week as he was passing through Washington seeking investment for his city.

But Klitschko now finds himself in a different kind of fight: leading Kiev at what is the most tumultuous moment in its post-Soviet history. A bloody civil war rages in the country’s east, Ukrainian gas supplies remain in limbo, and the economy survives only on the back of an assortment of foreign aid measures — most importantly, a $17 billion lifeline from the International Monetary Fund that is contingent upon the implementation of pro-growth and anti-corruption reforms.

The visit to Washington comes as Klitschko approaches his one-year anniversary as mayor. Eleven months ago, Klitschko was elected amid promises to breathe new life into the Ukrainian capital. Now, after meeting with U.S. lawmakers, Vice President Joe Biden, and potential investors around the city, he is trying to live up to his campaign promises and infuse some much needed cash into Kiev.

“My city is a safe city to invest. The war is 700 kilometers from the capital and Kiev has huge, untouched potential,” said Klitschko, referring to a distance equivalent to about 435 miles.

Polite and dressed in a sleek black suit, Kiev’s mayor certainly knows what to say and is exceedingly passionate about his work. He speaks English at a slow, measured pace, flaring up only as he prepares to make a point. But convincing investors to overlook war, the country’s gloomy economic outlook, and a history of being burned by previous corrupt administrations is no small feat. Still, Klitschko’s personal dedication is evident. “I will be the personal bodyguard for every investment in my city,” he said, half-jokingly. “If Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary can transform, then so can Ukraine.”

Despite the dreary forecast for Ukraine, the mayor has made serious strides toward reform. To improve transparency, Kiev is the first Ukrainian city to make all government documents public and available online. The tax code has been simplified, the corporate rate brought down to 18 percent from 23 percent. Klitschko is also pushing for police reform. After years of abuse and corruption, trust in the police force is at an all-time low, but Klitschko is hoping that a combination of higher salaries and competitive exams can restore the prestige to law enforcement. “We want the police to be young, educated, and have a completely different outlook,” said Klitschko.

The mayor is also hoping to loosen the Kremlin’s grip over Ukrainian energy: “Last winter we used 30 percent less Russian gas. It is our goal to get rid of energy dependence on Russia.” Years of cheap gas from the Kremlin has made Ukrainians wasteful with their usage, and Klitschko has unveiled an energy saving program for his city. “We used the old Soviet way to regulate temperature.” he joked, “if you’re hot, you open the window, if you’re cold, you close it.”

But residents have complained that efforts to save gas have left them without hot water, and according to a report from the newspaper Ukrainska Pravda, unable to get their services turned back on. “We are trying to break the old monopolies and create new opportunities, but this process is very much in the early stages,” Klitschko said by way of reply.

For the past 10 years, he has been trying to become more than just a boxer. He ran for mayor twice, in 2006 and 2008, losing each time. Finally, in 2010, he became chairman of the pro-Western Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform [UDAR] party. He ran as the party’s top candidate in the 2012 parliamentary election, helping UDAR become the third-largest faction.

During Ukraine’s Maidan revolution last year he became a pivotal figure, joining protesters and playing a large role in negotiations with the government of President Viktor Yanukovych, whom the protest movement ousted from power. After Yanukovych’s fall, Klitschko looked poised for a presidential run, but pulled out and instead ran for mayor. The decision coincided with an alleged meeting between current President Petro Poroshenko, Klitschko, and Dmytro Firtash, a Ukrainian oligarch currently confined to Vienna as he challenges a U.S. extradition order on corruption charges. According to a report in the New York Times, the men decided to unite behind Poroshenko.

The mayor denies those reports. “It’s a lie. I was in Austria to celebrate my brother’s birthday. Last spring was a critical time for Ukraine. I put aside my personal ambitions. It was my decision and it was for my country.”

Now Klitschko might be facing his biggest fight since being elected mayor. An investigative report published by Radio Svoboda, the Ukrainian language affiliate of Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty, alleges that a massive, multi-million dollar complex along the Dnieper River in Kiev being built with illegal permits obtained by a construction firm owned by a business partner of Igor Nikonov, Klitschko’s first deputy and a well known developer.

Klitschko denies the allegations about Nikonov, saying that the connection is nonexistent and the result of “black PR” by unnamed opponents trying to discredit him. “We even have a joke about this: One politician goes to another and says ‘I told everyone your daughter is a stripper.’ The other politician has no daughter, but now he must explain to everyone why his daughter is not a stripper.”

But the mayor acknowledges the difficulties regarding the building complex, which led to protests on April 1. The permits were issued under Klitschko’s predecessors , but the proposed construction has galvanized residents in opposition. After initially accepting the controversial paperwork, the mayor sent the permits for review at the city prosecutor’s office, where they are still under examination.

Reforming Ukraine is easier said than done, but the capital remains a testing ground for the challenges facing the entire country. Should Klitschko achieve his reforms, it could build his credentials for higher office — potentially the presidency. But first he’ll have to show that he can go the distance in Kiev.

Or as Klitschko puts it, “without fight, no win.”

 Rob Stothard/Getty Images

Reid Standish is a journalist based in Helsinki, Finland. He was formerly an associate editor at Foreign Policy. @reidstan

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