Photo Gallery: From Boxing to Politics
Family Affair The Klitschko Brothers' Most Important Fight
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: 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.
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.
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.
'No Victory Without a Fight'
Seehofer introduces Klitschko to his minister of European affairs, and he praises him for his appearances on Maidan Square, saying that what he is doing there is superhuman. Then he quickly turns the conversation to himself: "Do you know that I hold an honorary doctorate from the National Agricultural University in Kiev?" The two men talk about Ukrainian farmers and agricultural subsidies.
Klitschko is a polite man. He says that he regrets not seeing his friends this year at the traditional Weisswurst (veal sausage) party at the Stanglwirt Hotel. And he apologizes to his friend Ralf Moeller for forgetting his birthday because of the events in Kiev.
He takes time for courtesies. It makes him likeable and it defies the cliché of the boorish, pugnacious boxer. He uses the skill in Munich, as he sits next to Ukrainian Foreign Minister Leonid Kozhara on the podium at an evening event. He speaks German instead of sticking to Russian, struggling with the language as he attacks the Ukrainian government. This mixture of helplessness and combativeness is not ineffective. But it's also exhausting for someone who is so polite that he would never tell anyone to leave him alone.
During the discussion, he says: "There is no victory without a fight -- and we will fight." He still thinks like a boxer. But politics has its own rules. It isn't entirely clear who will end up winning this fight, or whether there will even be a winner.
When Kozhara claims that the protestors on Maidan Square are terrorists waving fascist symbols and throwing Molotov cocktails, Klitschko gets up and leaves the stage without saying a word. He returns with a folder full of photos, documentation of police violence against the demonstrators. He passes the photos around and shows them to the foreign minister, who hardly glances at then. He steps away from the podium like a boxer, and silently holds up one of the photos. For a brief moment, at least, Klitschko looks like a winner.
That evening, he sits in his hotel room, exhausted and somehow absent, as he waits for his wife, who has flown to Munich for the night. They haven't seen each other in a month. A box of flu medicine is on the table. Klitschko has a fever.
Foreign to Him
The next day, a chauffeured car provided by the Security Conference drives him to the airport. The speed limit is 120 kilometers per hour (75 mph), but the driver is going 200. Klitschko says nothing, but he is surprised nonetheless. Only about an hour later, when he is already in the air, he asks: "There's one thing you have to explain to me. Are they allowed to do that?" The world of the powerful, of chauffeurs who can break the rules without consequence, is foreign to him.
He is now flying over Germany, the country that became a second home to him and his brother, and where they developed a reputation as boxers. For Klitschko, Germany is an exemplary democracy, a model for what he hopes to achieve.
He tells a story about an incident in Germany, where he was once stopped for speeding. The police officer who stopped him congratulated Klitschko on his last fight, told him that he had been a fan for a long time, and then said: That'll be €30, please. "That's exactly the way it should be," says Klitschko. Then he falls asleep and doesn't wake up again until the plane lands in Kiev.
At the same time, Vitali's brother Vladimir is attending the Super Bowl in New Jersey. Standing on the red carpet, holding the Ukrainian flag in his hand, he talks with former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and gives Bloomberg TV an interview about his brother's struggle in Ukraine. He has assumed the role of ambassador, taking his brother's message to the rest of the world and using his network to recruit supporters.
After the game, he travels to Nashville and then to the German city of Oberhausen to attend a press conference announcing his next boxing match. On April 26, Klitschko will fight Samoan boxer Alex Leapai, who calls himself "Lionheart." There are many more journalists at the press conference than he had expected. Lionheart is wearing a polo shirt and baggy pants. The room is dimly lit with green and red spotlights, and there is a fog machine on the stage.
Klitschko is wearing a gray flannel suit, a dark gray tie and a Ukrainian flag in his lapel. He speaks briefly about his challenger for the world championship. When asked what is more important, his fight or Vitali's struggle, he says that the point is not to compare the two, but rather "victory for the Klitschko family." Vladimir was opposed to his brother going into politics, which he feels is stressful and thankless work. But his brother has always done as he pleased.
For the past 10 years, Vitali Klitschko has been trying to be more than just a boxer. In 2006, he ran for mayor of Kiev and came in second place. He ran, and lost, again in 2008. Two years later, he became chairman of the new, pro-Western UDAR party. He ran as his party's top candidate in the 2012 parliamentary election, in which UDAR became the third-largest faction in the parliament.
His father always made him feel that he had a duty to his country. As an adolescent, he showed little interest in politics, but he did have a poster of Arnold Schwarzenegger hanging in his room. Many years later, he met Schwarzenegger in California, shortly before he became governor of that state. Klitschko was fascinated by Schwarzenegger's career. If a former bodybuilder could become a successful politician, why couldn't a boxer do the same thing?
Vladimir Klitschko now understands his brother's decision, and the political project has become a joint venture. Vitali has often set the tone, says Vladimir on the plane from Hamburg to Kiev, in their boxing careers and in promotion. Vladimir still believes that they need each other, the politician and the boxer. Each of them helps to make the other one bigger, preserving the legend of the winner.
A Steady Gaze
He pulls his iPhone out of his pocket. He wants to share his contribution in recent weeks. He knows a lot of celebrities, especially since playing himself for a few seconds in the film "Ocean's Eleven." As far back as 2004, during the Orange Revolution, he began recruiting stars to support the struggle in Ukraine. He asked George Clooney and others to send a video message.
They got in touch with him again after the protests began on Maidan Square in late November. Clooney asked what he could do to help, and so did Schwarzenegger, German singer Klaus Meine of the Scorpions and composer Quincy Jones. Former US President Bill Clinton wanted to meet him at the Super Bowl. Although the meeting didn't materialize, Clinton tweeted: "Kudos to brave Ukrainians demanding real democracy. Urge dialogue & peaceful resolution to achieve a strong, united Ukraine. They can do it!"
At midnight last Thursday, the two brothers finally get together at the Va bene Bistro, their favorite Italian restaurant in downtown Kiev, right next to the German Embassy. Vladimir said beforehand that the two brothers were always Spartan when they greet each other: no kisses, no hugs, no unnecessary words, just a steady gaze. Vitali is exhausted and has almost lost his voice. Vladimir intended to pick him up at the restaurant and take him home. But then the two brothers get into a deep conversation. They sit next to each other on a bench, putting their heads together and speaking quietly in Russian.
The situation in Ukraine has become even worse in recent days. Violence has broken out and dozens have been killed -- President Yanukovich shows now indication of backing down any time soon. Vitali Klitschko has spent hours negotiating with him, has called upon Yanukovich to resign and has rejected offers to join his government. What else can he do now? Vitali has been writing a column for the German mass-circulation newspaper Bild since December to maintain a presence in the German media.
But on Thursday evening, he doesn't write anything. What else is there to report?
Their iPhones are on the table. They take one last look, and then they go to bed.