KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Towering over his fellow protest leaders, reigning world heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko has emerged as Ukraine’s most popular opposition figure and has ambitions to become its next president.
Thanks to his sports-hero status and his reputation of being a new pro-Western politician untainted by Ukraine’s frequent corruption scandals, Klitschko, 42, has surpassed jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko in opinion polls.
As massive anti-government protests continue to grip Ukraine, Klitschko 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.”
Klitschko was one of 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 Kiev, the capital. As the boxer called for peace, the jubilant crowd chanted his name.
On Wednesday, his party was one of several opposition parties to blockade the Ukrainian parliament as part of a nationwide strike.
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 after several years of preparations and to focus on ties with Russia instead. Russia has been threatening Ukraine with economic trading consequences if the country signs the EU deal.
The demonstrations in Kiev were galvanized when Yanukovych’s government sent in riot police with truncheons to break up a small, peaceful rally in the middle of the night, injuring dozens.
“They took away people’s hope to implement reforms, to change the situation in the country,” Klitschko said, speaking to the AP inside the parliament building. “They stole our hope.”
Now Klitschko must prove that he has as much stamina in the political arena as he does in the boxing ring. In more than 15 years as a professional boxer, Klitschko has scored 45 victories in 47 fights, 41 on them with knockouts, earning the nickname “Dr. Ironfist.” He plans to have one more bout before he retires and still spends several hours a day training.