Vitali Klitschko brings the fight home

KYIV, Ukraine — Vitali Klitschko has been waiting for a better future for more than 20 years.

That may sound strange coming from the reigning World Boxing Council heavyweight champion, who has spent his career traveling the world, raking in millions of dollars in globally-televised prize fights and building a reputation as one of the greatest boxers in the history of the sport.

But consider his homeland: once the European Union’s great eastern hope for democratization, Ukraine has recently receded into semi-authoritarian rule, marred by widespread official corruption, crony politics and a general sense of social despair.

Since the election of President Viktor Yanukovych in 2010, the authorities have jailed outspoken opponents, bullied critical media and dragged Ukraine further away from Europe’s embrace.

A place where corruption “has eaten away at all the branches of government” is not the future he imagined for his country after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Klitschko says.

“They keep telling us things will change, but nothing is changing,” he said in an interview of Yanukovych’s rule, which both domestic and international critics have slammed as undemocratic.

After two decades of watching progress stall, Klitschko says, he was left with only one choice.

“You can knock on doors, stage demonstrations, and write letters, which doesn’t do anything,” he said. “Or you can enter politics and change things. I choose the second option.”

So far, his move has paid off. In the span of just several months, the 42-year-old has shot to the forefront of Ukraine’s political scene.

Having first tried his hand at local politics, he’s now hit the big time: his party, the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform — its acronym, UDAR, is the Ukrainian word for “punch” — came in third place during last October’s parliamentary elections. Klitschko was elected to the legislature, where he chairs the UDAR faction.

Although opposition forces surged, the results showed voters are displeased with its current leaders — many of whom are tied to the disgraced Orange Revolution-era administration of former President Viktor Yushchenko — and long for a fresh face in Ukrainian politics, says political analyst Serhiy Taran of the International Democracy Institute in Kyiv.

“There is a sense of weariness with the current political elite,” he says.

Rumors of a presidential bid by Klitschko in 2015 have increased since the vote. His ratings have risen to the point that he would narrowly defeat Yanukovych if a vote were held now, according to a June poll by the Kyiv International Institute for Sociology.

He has benefitted from the perception that he is largely free from the kind of political intrigue that has ensnared his contemporaries. Many Ukrainians see him as a self-made man who built his career not on the shady patronage politics of post-Soviet Ukraine, but the discipline of the boxing ring, where he has registered 45 wins and only two losses.

Dubbed “Dr. Ironfist” for his powerful punch and PhD in sports science, Klitschko nevertheless remains coy about his presidential ambitions.

“The question is not about whether a person wants to run for president — there are probably many people who can run,” he says in his party’s headquarters in central Kyiv. “The question is different: can a person win a presidential election? The main thing is that you need the support of the majority of people.”

That may sound vague, but Klitschko exudes confidence.

As he speaks, he extends his 6 foot 7 inch frame and kicks back in his chair. At times, when he leans in and thrusts his broad shoulders forward, the confidence becomes near-aggression — a reflection, perhaps, of his party’s uphill battle to change Ukraine.

“It’s no secret that the goal for any party is to gain power,” he says forcefully. “But power is not the ultimate goal — it’s an instrument with which to implement reforms.”

Those reforms should be far-ranging: wresting the economy from the control of oligarchs, straightening out the crooked judiciary and reforming the underpaid and notoriously corrupt police force.

Listing the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland as Eastern European models for Ukraine, Klitschko stops short of offering more detailed policy recommendations.

“We need people who are professionals in their field, but those who want to work and, most important, those who have a sense of moral responsibility,” he says.

Their popular support may be growing, but Klitschko and UDAR still face a tough road ahead, in an arena where his 87 percent knockout rate counts for little.

Many observers say although voters widely distrust Yanukovych’s administration, there’s also a perception that any new and inexperienced political force is probably a “technical project” — a front for either the ruling regime or well-connected oligarchs — according to Taran, the political analyst.

Klitschko acknowledges the skepticism from certain corners that’s greeted his party’s meteoric rise, but fiercely rejects accusations that he is a “Trojan horse” for other interests.

“We are principled, we are systematic and we are professional,” he says.

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His stance may yet prove dangerous. In Yanukovych’s Ukraine, no good deed seems to go unpunished — especially from a popular rival.

The president’s biggest rival, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, is currently serving a seven-year prison sentence for abuse of office, a charge critics at home and abroad say was politically motivated.

That’s why Klitschko says he expects the Party of Regions to bring the fight to him in the form a “black PR” campaign aimed at discrediting him.

“We understand that they aren't prepared to give up power and are doing everything possible to ruin their opponents,” he says.

“I know there will be plenty of dirt, but it won’t stick.”