Klitschko Interview: 'I'd Also Shake Hands with Devil To Save Lives'
Vitali Klitschko was one of the leading figures in Ukraine's fight against former President Yanukovych. SPIEGEL speaks to the former boxer about the conflict with Russia, the future of Ukraine and whether war really is imminent.
SPIEGEL: Vitali Volodymyrovych, a proposed law has just been introduced to parliament seeking Ukraine's entry into NATO. Why, when Russian President Vladimir Putin is waiting for just this kind of provocation?
Klitschko: It's right that we need to do everything we can to avoid provoking a splitting of the country. But I still think it's the right move to hold negotiations about entering into NATO. Ukraine has and will continue to be militarily threatened by Russia, so the people of our country want a partner who can guarantee their safety. But that doesn't mean we'll have to automatically enter into NATO.
SPIEGEL: What can the new Ukrainian leadership offer to the inhabitants of Crimea?
Klitschko: The people in the Crimea, in Donetsk or Kharkiv, are only superficially concerned about language, history and national identity. They want a job, a proper income, a better life. That's where we need to try to offer them better solutions.
SPIEGEL: You called for a general mobilization on March 1, as if it were August 1914. What was that about?
Klitschko: The term "general mobilization" was completely misunderstood. For me, it was about the unity of Ukrainians in this difficult situation. My statement had no military implications whatsoever. I've advocated for a peaceful resolution to the conflict ever since Russia invaded Crimea, because I don't want Ukrainian and Russian soldiers to have to shoot at each other.
SPIEGEL: In doing so, you've intensified the conflict.
Klitschko: Since the beginning of the conflict I've repeated, every day, that both sides need to negotiate. I've never called for violence.
SPIEGEL: Why didn't you and your Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform (UDAR) party enter into the government, in order to shape policy? It seems a bit cowardly.
Klitschko: Our demand was for an independent government with as many independent politicians as possible, a so-called technocratic government. Our ideals and our agenda cannot be found in the current government, and on many issues we have completely different positions. We have a completely different plan for reform and for the future, which, for the good of the Ukrainian people, we will hopefully have the opportunity to enact after our success in the presidential election.
SPIEGEL: But now Yulia Tymoshenko's Fatherland Party has taken up all of the important posts.
Klitschko: We said from the start that, in this situation, we don't think it's smart for one party to take over all of the posts. But under the current conditions cited, we didn't have any option except to stay out of the government.
SPIEGEL: Why? You could have much more influence from within the government.
Klitschko: I'm not going to say here who broke the agreement. I don't want to weaken the democratic forces. Because then we would be repeating the mistake of 2004 -- when, after the Orange Revolution, everybody started pursuing their own interests.
SPIEGEL: There might be another reason why you're not taking part in this government -- because it would hurt your chances in the presidential election. This cabinet will have to undertake some unpopular measures.
Klitschko: From the start, it wasn't about whether or not I was going to be part of the government. If we had become part of the government, the people joining it would have been other cabinet members. And anyways I can't be both a member of the government and a candidate for president.
SPIEGEL: Do you think Yulia Tymoshenko's return to politics is wise? Many people on Independence Square (Maidan) reject her.
Klitschko: I won't comment on that.
SPIEGEL: Many people in the new leadership have served in previous governments. But the people want new faces.
Klitschko: There are also members of the opposition. And new faces were brought into the provincial administrations. And many oligarchs have adapted to the new balance of power and are supporting the new government, because for them, the opening to the West is inevitable for economic reasons. Moreover, they are creating jobs and are effective managers.
SPIEGEL: Your UDAR party and Tymoshenko's party are working together with the militant Right Sector and the right-wing nationalist Svoboda Party. That plays into Putin's hands. Now he can talk about a "fascist movement."
Klitschko: We are not working together. We joined forces in our fight against the regime, nothing more. We have different political agendas, different ideologies, different supporters.
SPIEGEL: Could strict sanctions by the West against Russia help the situation?
Klitschko: We need to use all means of pressure at our disposal to get this conflict resolved at the negotiating table. It's unimaginable that Ukrainians and Russians would kill one another. My mother is Russian, my father Ukrainian. Mixed families are very common in both countries.
SPIEGEL: Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said that the way Putin is talking about protecting Crimea is similar to the way Hitler spoke about the ethnic Germans in Czechoslovakia and in Romania in the 1930s.
Klitschko: Putin already tried that in Abkhazia, under the banner of protecting Russian citizens in Georgia. In doing so he split that country. I just got an email from a member of Russia's German ethnic minority. It's a fictional letter to Mr. Putin: "Dear Mr. Putin, there are 5 million Russian speakers in Germany. We are being bullied: People are forcing us to work. And the biggest problem is that we're being forced to speak German -- in government offices, businesses, schools and even at work. On top of that, the kids have to speak German in the kindergartens. Please save us: Send your army to Germany."
SPIEGEL: Putin considers the current government to be illegitimate, and won't accept the results of the presidential election either. He's calling for a return to the agreement that you and other opposition leaders signed on Feb. 21 after negotiations with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslav Sikorski and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius. Is that conceivable?
Klitschko: It's (former Ukrainian president) Yanukovych who broke his word: He disappeared immediately after we signed the agreement. Because it came too late. It would have been accepted if it had come one week earlier, before there were any deaths. But Yanokovych always negotiated too late.
SPIEGEL: It was also clear that this agreement -- for a new presidential election in December -- wouldn't be accepted by the Maidan activists.
Klitschko: I told Yanukovych that the only path that Maidan would accept following the bloodshed was his immediate resignation. But in order to avoid escalation, we worked towards a compromise. To have called off the talks would have caused fighting in the streets.
SPIEGEL: It wasn't only Yanukovych -- the opposition always came too late as well. When the people went into the streets in Kiev in November, you and other opposition members didn't believe that a protest movement could emerge from it. You also were chasing after the events.
Klitschko: You are right. I had hoped for a long time that we could apply peaceful pressure to the government. But again and again, different political forces emerged, with requests for the resignation of the government, for the resignation of the president, for an immediate system change. And the Maidan movement supported them in this. These people were in the mood to attack.
SPIEGEL: And that's why you ended up deposing Yanukovych, even though it wasn't constitutional and you didn't have enough votes for it.
Klitschko: Yanukovych had disappeared. We needed to act. A constitutional majority of over 300 votes approved the election of a new parliamentary leader -- as well as the return to the constitution from 2004. Now instead of a presidential republic, we have a parliamentary-presidential republic with equal powers between the cabinet, parliament and president.
SPIEGEL: What did you learn from the Maidan during these last three months?
Klitschko: I can't say quite yet, for a number of reasons. I'm still processing it all, so much happened in that time. At some point I'll write a book about it.
SPIEGEL: Do you regret shaking hands with Yanukovych on Feb. 21? That image will haunt you.
Klitschko: That was the worst moment on Independence Square -- when after the talks with the president I stood on the stage and people were no longer listening to me. After that I spent three hours on the square and everyone asked me: How could you shake his bloodied hand? I told them: I'd also shake hands with the devil in order to save lives.
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