Family Affair The Klitschko Brothers' Most Important Fight

He made his name in the boxing ring, but now Vitali Klitschko finds himself in the middle of the most important fight of his life -- in the political arena. As he has risen to become the face of the Ukrainian uprising, his brother Vladimir has never been far from his side.


It is late last Thursday, Vladimir Klitschko finally pulls up to the business terminal of the Hamburg Airport in a black Mercedes. By the time he climbs into a private plane, he is half an hour behind schedule. The captain comes over to give him the details on the upcoming flight to Kiev, but Klitschko has no time for the pilot. He has to call his brother. He calls it signing off.

Signing off and signing on -- it's something their father taught them when they were children. The brothers belonged together; it was important that each of them always knew where the other one was. It's been their ritual for years, and part of it involves not only addressing each other by their first names, but also in the traditional manner, including their father's name.

Vladimir dials the number, and Vitali sees his brother's name pop up on his display.
"Vladimir Vladimirovich!" he bellows into the phone, "what do you have to report?"
"Vitali Vladimirovich!" Vladimir responds. "We're about to take off."

Then he hangs up. There is no need to say anything else, no need for any extraneous words. That too is part of their ritual.

Since their teenage years, the two Klitschkos have been a single unit, ranked by their father, a former general in the Soviet air force, with Vitali being responsible for his younger brother.

Photo Gallery

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Photo Gallery: The Disintegration of Kiev
They have boxed together, these two "gigantic bouncers," as their friend and business partner Bernd Bönte calls them. While one of them stood in the ring, the other one was sitting in the corner holding a towel. When Vitali was injured, Vladimir won a world championship. When Vitali lost his WBO title, Vladimir took revenge in the next championship fight. And eventually they became world champions at the same time, each in a different boxing federation. The two brothers are separated by five years and exactly two centimeters. Vitali, the older one, is two meters (6'6") tall and Vladimir is 1.98 meters. As a duo, they have turned the boxing world upside down, as "Dr. Ironfist" and "Dr. Steel Hammer," the world's first professional boxers with doctorates, two polite, well-dressed men in Hugo Boss designer coats. "We only come as a family pack," they said.

Now they are waging another battle, with Vitali in the limelight and Vladimir supporting him. It's probably their most important fight, and this time it isn't entirely certain that they will win. Since Ukrainians began demonstrating on Maidan Square in Kiev for closer ties with Europe and more democracy -- following the government's rejection of the EU Association Agreement in late November -- Vitali Klitschko has become the face of the resistance movement.

Beginning to Fade

He is better known in the West than all other opposition leaders. He is popular in Ukraine because he is not corrupt, unlike most Ukrainian politicians, because he fearlessly inserts himself between the opposing fronts and because this broad-shouldered boxer gives them confidence. This is his political capital, but it is slowly beginning to fade.

The initial festive mood surrounding the protests has given way to a great sense of impatience, to which Klitschko contributed by repeatedly making maximum demands and issuing ultimatums with no consequences. Because of his approach, Klitschko lost some of his authority and disappointed some of his supporters. Many on Maidan Square have become more radical and right-wing than he would like. And now that violence has broken out, despite a pair of recent meetings between Klitschko and Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, it is clearer than ever that his influence is limited.

Klitschko is aware of this, and it worries him.

It's Friday, Jan. 31, and Vitali Klitschko is standing in the parking lot at Zhulyany International Airport in Kiev, wearing a parka and a lined aviator cap against the cold. He has just come from a long meeting with the two other opposition leaders. Before the meeting, the president had agreed to do away with harsh anti-protest laws. Klitschko is fighting the flu and looks pale and tired. He was at the hospital until 2 a.m. the night before, visiting Dmitry Bulatov, the opposition leader who was missing for eight days and was allegedly tortured.

Elmar Brok, a member of the European Parliament and one of Klitschko's allies, left Kiev the day before, but without giving Klitschko hope of more support from the European Union. It was also Brok who advised Klitschko to attend the Munich Security Conference, where he is now headed.

He spent a long time thinking about whether to go, and whether he might lose control over the movement if he spent two days meeting with politicians in a posh Munich hotel. But it's also an important opportunity. He is scheduled to attend a parliamentary evening hosted by Germany's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), followed by a meeting with EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton.

There are three people standing in front of him. He has promised all three that they could accompany him to Munich in his private jet. But the captain shakes his head. There is only room for two of them. Klitschko asks a second time, but the captain only shakes his head again.

Very Uncomfortable

Does he have to worry about this now, too? One of the three has to be on the plane, so it's up to Klitschko to choose between the other two. He looks relieved when someone hands him a two-euro coin. Heads or tails? He tosses the coin into the air.

Sorry, he says. It's heads. The photographer for the German tabloid Bild can come along, while the SPIEGEL reporter will have to stay in Kiev. Klitschko feels very uncomfortable.

In Munich, Klitschko meets with all the people who have written newspaper articles about him and Ukraine in recent weeks. On Saturday morning, he meets with US Secretary of State John Kerry, followed by Republican Senator John McCain. Finally, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy comes to his hotel room, while German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier waits for Klitschko in the fireplace room. They all support him.

"The United States and the EU fully stand behind the people of Ukraine," says Kerry. Steinmeier greets him politely and briefly shakes his hand, but offers no fraternal gestures. He does tell Klitschko that Germany would accept Bulatov if Yanukovich would allow him to leave the country. It's a friendly gesture, but it doesn't do much to further Klitschko's cause. He invites the minister to come to Kiev.

Klitschko is the star of the security conference, an exotic bird in a sea of foreign policy experts who meet in Munich every year. Every TV station and every newspaper wants to interview him, and every cabinet minister wants a meeting with Klitschko.

He doesn't refuse to meet with anyone who wants to see him, including members of the Swiss delegation and Norwegian Foreign Minister Børge Brende, with whom he meets in the Tiroler Stube restaurant at the Hotel Bayerischer Hof. "We support your fight for democracy," says the minister. "Tell us what you need." Brende's advisers are hardly taking any notes, but they are constantly snapping photos, as if they were documenting an important moment in history.

"What we really need are sanctions," Klitschko replies. He wants more than solidarity. He wants a promise that the West will exert pressure on President Yanukovich. He wants sanctions and he wants accounts frozen -- he certainly wants more than just words. For the first time in his life, Klitschko is playing the role of supplicant.

There are concerns over whether sanctions would be effective, and there are concerns about the opposition, an odd alliance of the nationalist Svoboda party, the Fatherland party of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and Klitschko's UDAR party. Svoboda presents a problem for Klitschko, but he needs the party's support and can only distance himself from it to a degree. The Fatherland party presents its own challenges, with a party leader who snubs her parliamentary leader, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, from her jail cell. For Klitschko, on the other hand, experienced politician Yatsenyuk is a potential rival.

A Friend?

On Saturday midday, the day after the meetings, Vitali Klitschko is sitting in his suite, room 268, at the Bayerischer Hof. For the first time that day, he is finally able find the time to eat. He orders a plate of pork shoulder roast with potato dumplings, the heartiest dish on the menu. He tosses his tie over his shoulder. "Guys," he asks, "don't you want something, too?"

Many in Munich have referred to him as a friend, a word politicians like to use. He says he can handle the fact that everyone wants to be photographed with him, and that everyone is vying for his attention. But he also knows how to tell whether someone is a true friend. "False friends tell you that you're the most beautiful, the best and the strongest. They keep on saying it, until you yourself believe that you're the most beautiful, the best and the strongest. But then you lose a match, and the world championship belt is passed on to the next one. Suddenly your false friends are saying: That other guy is the most beautiful, the best and the strongest. And you stand there and watch them walk away." But he isn't complaining. "That's life," Klitschko says. The real question is whether more of the people he met at the Security Conference are real or false friends.

The doorbell rings. There are two bodyguards posted outside Suite 268. Since his arrival in Munich, the men have accompanied him everywhere outside his hotel room. Klitschko doesn't feel that having constant personal protection should be necessary in Germany, especially not in a hotel like the Bayerischer Hof and has told them as much several times. Just before, when his advisers and the two bodyguards were crowded into an elevator with him, he said that he could easily fight and shoot better than them -- but he said it with a smile.

Now the men are standing outside the door like two schoolboys, saying that they will respect his wishes. "We will stay out of your way," they say.

"Oh, come on, guys," Klitschko calls out to them from the room. Then he walks over, puts his arms around them and says: "Don't be mad at me." He takes the time to apologize, but then it's time to go. Bavarian Governor Horst Seehofer is waiting to see him.


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jrhoyne 02/20/2014
1. Klistschko
The Ukrainian Lech Walesa!
geroldf 02/25/2014
2. VK bro's for the win
The Klitschko brothers just might be the best hope for Ukraine. Leadership is critical in these kinds of situation, and the VK bro's have the intelligence and integrity to be very effective leaders in the new Ukraine.
r.gabruch 02/25/2014
3. Base Issues
As a member of the Ukrainian diaspora - it saddens me that my best hope for Ukrainian leadership is someone who ends up speaking Russian with his brother. We wish Ukrainians in Ukraine knew how closely even third fourth and fifth generation emigrants still perpetuate Ukrainian langauge and culture in Canada, US, Australia, Brazil, Serbia, etc. We recognize the challenges of two to three generations of Russification and Sovietization. We recognize the political strength in numbers of Russian speakers in Ukraine. However, a leader needs to act like a leader and maintain a principled Ukrainian first approach. I do hope that the Firtash influence on Klitschko is not overwhelming and corrupting.
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