Ukraine's Vitali Klitschko: 'The People Intend to Fight'

Interview Conducted By and Erich Follath

Opposition leader Vitali Klitschko holds a Ph.D. in sports science, a boxing world heavyweight title, a seat in the Ukrainian Parliament and the top spot in opposition party UDAR, the Ukrainian word for "punch." Zoom
Yuri Kozyrev/ Noor/ DER SPIEGEL

Opposition leader Vitali Klitschko holds a Ph.D. in sports science, a boxing world heavyweight title, a seat in the Ukrainian Parliament and the top spot in opposition party UDAR, the Ukrainian word for "punch."

Ukrainian opposition leader and heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko spoke to SPIEGEL about his presidential ambitions, the ongoing threat of a violent crackdown against the protesters, and Germany's role in bringing Ukraine closer to Europe.

The office in the headquarters of his Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform (UDAR) party is spartanly furnished with a long table and uncomfortable chairs. The only decoration on the wall is a large map of Ukraine with the results of the 2012 parliamentary election.

The young party received nearly 14 percent of the vote, an accomplishment that it primarily owes to its chairman, Vitali Klitschko, 42, who has a large following in Ukraine. Since placing himself at the head of the current wave of protests, Klitschko has risen to become the most popular politician in the country.

Not everyone believes in the political abilities of the reigning world heavyweight champion boxer, but he has a reputation as a man of integrity, in contrast to the corrupt team in the government. He rushes from appointment to appointment, with his cell phone constantly pressed against his ear.

For this interview he switched off his mobile phone, had the doors closed, and told his staff that he didn't want to be disturbed. Throughout the interview, Klitschko seemed tired, but highly focused. He struggled to find the right words after long pauses. He says he can sense that history is being written in these days. He had just been with the demonstrators at Kiev's Independence Square, and he intended to return there that evening.


SPIEGEL: Mr. Klitschko, will you be the next Ukrainian president?

Klitschko: Viktor Yanukovych is doing everything he can to be president for life.

SPIEGEL: That wasn't the question. Do you have serious ambitions to ascend to the highest political office in the country?

Klitschko: Many people think they have what it takes, but only very few actually do. After carefully considering the matter, I have decidedto stand in the next election. Sooner or later, the Yanukovych era will have to end -- hopefully sooner.

SPIEGEL: You are being hailed as a savior these days. Many people believe that with you -- and only with you -- everything will be all right in Ukraine. Does this feel like a burden?

Klitschko: You're right. The expectations of my fellow Ukrainians are in fact colossal, and the worst thing that could happen is for them to be disappointed. I'm afraid of that. But it also motivates me.

SPIEGEL: The first disappointment is just around the corner. The revolt hasrun out of steam, and after more than three weeks of demonstrations you have failed to achieve any of your key political objectives.

Klitschko: It would be wrong to say that there are no prospects for victory. At the same time, I also can't say that our chances are good. But the fact that so many people are taking to the streets shows how upset they are. Ukrainians are tired of constantly being fobbed off with promises. They are yearning for change. They want an end to the social injustice and lies.

SPIEGEL: What exactly sparked the current mass demonstrations?

Klitschko: We Ukrainians call the protest movement "Euro-Maidan" ...

SPIEGEL: ... after Kiev's central Independence Square ...

Klitschko: ... and yet I would by no means say that everyone has taken to the streets only because of the failed association agreement with the European Union. Many of them joined in after a special police unit forcefully cleared the square, and after the brutal attacks resulting in many injuries. The people will not allow Ukraine to become a police state. They intend to fight for their political convictions and justice.

SPIEGEL: You tried to topple the government with a vote of no confidence in parliament -- and failed. Were you perhaps too sure of yourself?

Klitschko: We were a bit naļve. The also shocked many members of parliament in the governing party. Over 50 of them have told us privately that they wanted to vote against the government. Some of them have actually left the governing faction, others were pressured during the night before the vote and allowed themselves to be swayed out of fear for their business interests. The government knows exactly where it hurts.

SPIEGEL: What are your current demands for negotiating with the leadership?

Klitschko: First, the release of all arrested demonstrators. Second, someone has to take responsibility for the police violence. Such a far-reaching command could not have been issued without approval from the very top. The only thing that we have heard so far is a halfhearted apology from the prime minister. Not just the interior minister, but the entire government has to step down. But not even that will resolve the political crisis. The only thing that can help is early parliamentary and presidential elections.

SPIEGEL: Is President Yanukovych serious about his offer of establishing a permanent national roundtable?

Klitschko: It's extremely difficult for me to gauge the president's intentions. I'm afraid that a roundtable would only serve to stave us off with empty talk.

SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, on Friday afternoon you and the other leading opposition politicians unexpectedly decided to meet with the president.

Klitschko: You have to use every opportunity for dialogue. Yanukovych seemed tense. Otherwise, it was business as usual: Our demands fell on deaf ears, and the president contented himself with vague promises. At least he promised not to resort to the use of force for the time being. I warned him that if there were another police operation, it would have serious repercussions -- for the country, but also for him personally.

SPIEGEL: And otherwise ...

Klitschko: ... the president remains erratic, just like his wavering course during the talks with the EU. During over 30 meetings with negotiators Pat Cox from Ireland and Aleksander Kwasniewski from Poland, he was offered every possible option. But he hasn't used any of them. That's why I can't take seriously his recent announcement that he will sign the agreement in Brussels after all.

SPIEGEL: But hasn't Europe also made serious mistakes? EU negotiator Kwasniewski has just admitted to SPIEGEL that they have been naļve. Günter Verheugen, the former commissioner for EU enlargement, said that the EU made a "capital error." The negotiators had failed to offer Ukraine the prospect of EU membership.

Klitschko: No matter how many offers they would have made to Yanukovych, he would have ultimately turned them down. You cannot convince someone of something that he fundamentally rejects. To him it was all a game.

SPIEGEL: How do you see the Germans' role in all this?

Klitschko: The visit by German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle was very important. The contact to the chancellor is encouraging, as well as to the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee at the European Parliament in Brussels, Elmar Brok, who is also a member of Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Germany's word holds a great deal of weight here. I would be happy to see the German government play a role as intermediary.

SPIEGEL: No one will be able to bridge the deep divisions within Ukrainian society. In eastern Ukraine, which has a close affinity to Russia, fewer than 15 percent want to see the country draw closer to the EU, while more than two-thirds of the rest of the population favors it.

Klitschko: There are in fact historically rooted cultural and linguistic differences in Ukraine. But the actual problems in our country are unemployment, poor medical care and the lack of social security. That's something that the north, south, east and west all have in common. Since they are incapable of tackling these issues, politicians attempt to capitalize on regional differences.

SPIEGEL: But you cannot deny that eastern Ukraine favors Russia.

Klitschko: This has to do with the fact that 70 percent of Ukrainians only know the West from what they see on TV. TV networks that are loyal to the government and Russian media in the east of the country definitely have a dominating influence on public opinion. Consequently, we have to explain to them over and over: Life in the EU is much better than in the Moscow-led customs union.

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1. optional
spon-facebook-10000061525 12/16/2013
This man deserves to be president of Ukraine. If he will succeed, it remains to be seen
2. Ukraine
jrmichaluk 12/21/2013
European Countries will have to do more to support Ukraine. With Russian threats and bullying it is very hard to establish a true democracy in Ukraine.
3. Ukraine and Europe
jrmichaluk 12/21/2013
Europe must look at the long term with Ukraine. With Ukraine in the EU camp then Europe will be a lot stronger down the road. This is not a short term goal. It makes more sense to have Ukraine in the EU than countries such as Romania and Bulgaria who have major problems with corruption. The EU will be more stable and secure with Ukraine. The EU must support Ukraine Fully and bide time Until the new generation of Leaders that were born after 1991 take over. EU must support them and they must not send mixed messages to Ukraine and the Ukrainian people.
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