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

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.
Von Benjamin Bidder und Erich Follath

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 naïve. 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 naïve. 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.

'Every Country Needs Good Relations With Its Neighbors'

SPIEGEL: What would relations to Russia be like under a President Vitali Klitschko?

Klitschko: Every country needs good relations with its neighbors. This also holds true for Russia, one of our largest trading partners. At the same time, Ukraine has to pursue its national interests. Both sides should benefit from good neighborly relations -- and this means that they have to respect each other.

SPIEGEL: Vladimir Putin  once said that Ukraine was not a proper state.

Klitschko: Our neighbors to the east regrettably view the issue of EU integration exclusively from a geopolitical standpoint. But that's not the point: We are not fighting against anyone. We are choosing a road to development for our country. Unfortunately many people in Moscow still view Ukraine as "their zone" -- as part of the Russian sphere of influence. They don't understand that it would also be better for them to have a Ukraine that is a strong neighbor, with a strong economy. A Russian expansion at Ukraine's expense is impossible.

SPIEGEL: Putin says that the EU -- not Russia -- is actually intervening in Ukraine. Aren't all sides trying to make Ukraine into their sphere of influence?

Klitschko: We negotiate with Europe as equals; Russia looks down at us. The EU makes us offers; Russia wants to impose its will on us.

SPIEGEL: If you could speak with the Russian president in the current situation, what would you say to him?

Klitschko: I know him; we've already met. If we were to meet now, then it would be a very long conversation, and not one between a lord and his subject. Instead, it would be between equals.

SPIEGEL: Would you tell him that you are striving over the long term for Ukraine to enter the EU?

Klitschko: The answer is obvious. Just look at the countries that have oriented themselves toward Europe, and those that haven't. In the former East Bloc countries we all had similar starting conditions after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Today we see the progress made by countries that have elected to take the European route. They have a high standard of living, better infrastructure, and civil rights are respected. This is the only way for us.

SPIEGEL: Russia is also concerned about Ukraine forming a military alliance with the West. Do you seriously believe that you can lead your country into NATO?

Klitschko: The Russians are currently collaborating much more closely with NATO than we are, for example, in the fight against terror and in Afghanistan. We cannot afford to divide the world into good and evil, as it was during the Cold War era. Russia's reservations toward an alliance are a distant echo of Soviet propaganda. For young Russians, though, NATO is no longer a specter -- nor is it for Ukrainians.

SPIEGEL: Is Poland  your model?

Klitschko: Yes, we have a great deal in common. Our countries are comparable in terms of population size and mentality. There are historical commonalities. Soviet influence has left its mark on both states. You can see the extent to which our neighbors have outpaced us just by the number of Ukrainians who now find work in Poland.

SPIEGEL: How do you intend to resolve the dramatic economic crisis?

Klitschko: The economic problems are a consequence of failed policies. There is no competition; Ukraine is a country of monopolies. We have 28 different types of taxes. They are weighing down small and medium-sized companies, which form the backbone of the economy in every normal country. We want to simplify the tax laws and fight the underground economy. Other countries have already taken this route before us, Georgia in fact just recently. If we lay down clear ground rules for companies, investors will also come and create jobs.

SPIEGEL: That doesn't sound very convincing. But even if it succeeds, it doesn't wipe out your country's billions in debt. And how do you intend to break the supremacy of the oligarchs?

Klitschko: I know all of the oligarchs. From conversations with them I know that they are extremely concerned about their assets. They want reforms because they need regulations and legal safeguards.

SPIEGEL: How long can the demonstrators on the Maidan hold out? How long do you intend to continue to send them onto the streets in snow and freezing temperatures?

Klitschko: One thing is clear: These people haven't gone to the Maidan because of Klitschko or any other politician. They are demonstrating for their civil rights. We are committed to representing their interests. If I can't meet their expectations, they will turn to another politician.

SPIEGEL: How will Yanukovych react if new barricades are built and old ones are defended?

Klitschko: I am concerned that the president will again attempt to resolve the situation with violence, just like last Monday. First, he talked about a roundtable, then at night he sent in the police. The government is not really interested in compromises. And as long as it takes this attitude, we cannot offer any, either.

SPIEGEL: What means do you still have at your disposal to pressure Yanukovych to back down?

Klitschko: The most effective means are the people who take to the streets. History has taught us that things end badly for presidents who don't listen to their people.

SPIEGEL: The United States is considering economic sanctions.

Klitschko: If Yanukovych decides to quell peaceful demonstrations, sanctions will be necessary.

SPIEGEL: Do you still see jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko  as a rival for the office of president?

Klitschko: In order to stand for election, Ms. Tymoshenko first has to be released. We are expressly demanding this. What we need, though, is a united opposition. The Yanukovych camp has vast financial resources and media power. The opposition only has a chance of success if it now rallies its forces around one individual who can beat Yanukovych.

SPIEGEL: Do you sometimes regret that you gave up your comfortable life as a sports star?

Klitschko: From time to time, when my 11-year-old daughter cries and asks, "Dad, when will you have time to play again?" My wife and I try to explain to her that Dad has to do something for our country -- something very important.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Klitschko, thank you for this interview.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen
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