Vitali Klitschko: World champion fights for power in Ukraine
The WBC world heavyweight is building a political party – and he's siding with the country's jailed ex-leader
As Ukraine's political arena becomes ever more fractious and ill-tempered, a man who is better known for knocking his opponents to the ground is hoping to rise above the fray and unite his country. Vitali Klitschko, the WBC world heavyweight boxing champion, is building his own political party, and perhaps fancies himself as a future president of Ukraine.
The 40-year-old Mr Klitschko, who is still a professional boxer, heads the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform, which handily makes the acronym Udar, or punch in Russian and Ukrainian. Nicknamed Dr Ironfist for his formidable record in the ring, the boxer has never been knocked out.
He has been less successful in the political arena, losing out in mayoral elections in Kiev in 2006. But in recent months, the fortunes of Udar seem to be in the ascendancy.
Last week, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who helped lead the Orange Revolution and was the country's most prominent opposition politician, was jailed for seven years. If the sentence is not overturned on appeal, Ukrainians will need to find a new generation of opposition politicians to harness the discontent with President Viktor Yanukovych, and Mr Klitschko could be one of the main beneficiaries.
"The main value of our party is to put people first, to give people a real choice,"Mr Klitschko told the The Independent. "Unfortunately, today most politicians in Ukraine seem to value money first, and put people second."
The boxer was once a supporter of the Orange Revolution, but more than seven years later, the Orange coalition has fallen apart and Mr Yanukovych, the man it ousted, is back in power. And while Mr Klitschko criticises the court case against Ms Tymoshenko as politicised, his party could well benefit from her voters.
"All of today's political elite have already gone through the whole cycle from opposition to power but they haven't changed anything for the ordinary Ukrainian," says Mr Klitschko, who talks slowly and precisely, without smiling. Exactly how he would be different or what exactly he stands for is hard to discern. He talks about honest politics. But in a country where there is extreme cynicism towards politics and politicians, honesty is not a bad core value on which to base a political message.
His party has 400 local councillors and is gearing up for parliamentary elections next year. Polls put them in fourth place, with support growing all the time. Asked about whether he is ready to consider the biggest job of all, Mr Klitschko says that "if we have significant enough support from people, and the congress of the party takes the decision to take part in the presidential race, then I can't exclude it".
Twice a year,he enters the ring, and each time he takes a month off from politics and trains full time in the run-up. The rest of the year he is devoted to politics, and limits the gym to an hour each morning. He hasn't decided yet exactly when he plans to retire, but he says it will be "not that much longer". One thing is clear, however. Unlike most Ukrainian politicians, who travel with a large security retinue, the 6ft 8in Mr Klitschko has no such plans. "If I had bodyguards it would be me protecting them, not the other way round," he says, with his only grin of the interview.
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