Awkward Encounters The Klitschkos and the Chechen Despot
Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko aren't just feared boxers -- they are almost universally admired for their support of democracy. But recent appearances with infamous Chechen ruler Ramzan Kadyrov have many wondering if the brothers are worthy role models.
The Klitschko brothers are, without doubt, exceptions in the boxing world. Between the two of them, the brothers Wladimir, 34, and Vitali, 39, have racked up an impressive number of titles and trophies, including several world championships. Both put up tough fights in the ring without ever coming across as tough guys outside of it -- and they have successfully kept their distance from the worst of the fickle boxing world.
The public has always known the Ukrainian brothers as two likeable, dapper and well-spoken gentlemen. Both became advocates for UNESCO and have been awarded the German media awards Bambi and the Golden Camera. Former German President Johannes Rau appointed the brothers "ambassadors of integration."
Even in the political arena, the Klitschko brothers have seemed faultless. The two threw their support behind the pro-democracy protests during the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine and Vitali Klitschko even founded his own party, running for mayor of Kiev. "If the world is watching," he said then, "even brutal, power-hungry leaders think hard about whether they will be able to defeat a peaceful movement."
No one has had cause to doubt the sincerity of such lofty sentiments. Now, though, doubts are beginning to surface about just how deep the boxers' professed love of democracy runs.
Take, for example, an encounter on August 15, 2009. That summer evening, the otherwise squeaky clean Wladimir met a politician with a reputation for being far more than just a tough guy. Photographs that have been largely ignored in the West depict Wladimir Klitschko at the side of Ramzan Kadyrov, the infamous ruler of Chechnya.
Kadyrov is the son of former Chechen leader Akhmad Kadyrov, murdered in 2004 --- and the younger Kadyrov once oversaw his father's bodyguards. Then Russian President Vladimir Putin appointed him as Chechen president in 2007. World leaders do their best to avoid Kadyrov.
With good reason: Human rights organizations accuse Kadyrov of personally having committed torture and of ruthlessly persecuting his opponents. Austrian investigators even suspect the president of having ordered the murder of a Chechen living in exile -- a trial related to the murder is ongoing in Vienna. "We're quite good at destruction," boasts the Chechen leader, whose signature possession is a gold-plated pistol.
On that evening in August, Kadyrov finally received the recognition he so yearned for -- in the form of a world-renowned personality and an avowed believer in democracy: Wladimir Klitschko. Klitschko's agency, K2 East, had organized a boxing festival in Grozny, the Chechen capital. Following the event, Klitschko addressed his host: "I'd like to thank Ramzan Kadyrov, president of Chechnya." This, at least, is the quotation attributed to Klitschko on Ukrainian websites. The boxer is also quoted as suggesting that the boxing festival wouldn't be the last in the Chechen Republic and that it provided an opportunity for young people to establish their characters as "true warriors."
Just an anomaly? Not likely. Early this December, Vitali Klitschko sat next to Kadyrov at the boxing ring in the Ukrainian city of Brovary. Photos of the event almost exclusively show Kadyrov -- inside or near the ring, almost always striking a champion's pose, sometimes embracing one of the boxers, sometimes hoisting him onto his shoulders.
Just days before, Dick Marty, special rapporteur of the Council of Europe, gave testimony in the Vienna murder trial in which he described the Chechen ruler as a psychopath: "He lives in a palace with golden lions at the entrance. He has a private zoo which includes a tiger that's on the WWF's red list." Are we to believe the Klitschkos weren't aware of any of this?
Out of Shape
A Klitschko agency was once again responsible for the boxing event in Ukraine. The agency also distributed photos in Grozny of Kadyrov together with Wladimir Klitschko. Yet the boxers' official homepage makes no mention of the event. Only by searching through the forums on the site can one find comments concerning the encounters between the Klitschkos and the despot, many of them critical.
Bernd Bönte, director of the Klitschko Management Group, refutes all accusations, suggesting that since Chechen boxing star Zaurbek Baysangurov is signed to one of the Klitschkos' agencies, contact with Kadyrov is virtually unavoidable. Neither of the Klitschko brothers has ever expressed positive sentiments concerning Kadyrov, Bönte continues, and statements to the contrary in the Ukrainian press were completely fabricated. The brothers, he said, have no position on the Chechen president. The boxers, the manager adds, are unavailable for comment.
Perhaps a statement Wladimir once made on the radio can function as a stand-in. "Democracy is like sports," he said. "If you don't train regularly, you quickly get out of shape."
Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein