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Vitali Klitschko: Risks For The West's Anointed Hero In Ukraine

The former boxing champion has been plucked by the Western media as the new face of Ukraine's opposition. The situation is more complicated than that, even as risks for all rise.

Vitali Klitschko leading a Kiev protest last month
Vitali Klitschko leading a Kiev protest last month
Cathrin Kahlweit

KIEV — Vitali Klitschko — the name is synonymous with victory in the boxing ring, but not so on the political stage. The former boxer has run twice in the mayoral elections in Kiev, and lost both times. During the national elections in 2012, his Udar party narrowly missed its aim to gain 15% of the vote.

Now, as Ukrainian opposition masses are locked in a battle in the streets with authorities to protest against the government's refusal to sign a pact with the European Union, the eyes of the Western media are turned on Klitschko.

European newspapers have dubbed the former boxer “leader of the Ukrainian opposition,” and much of their coverage of the demonstrations in Ukraine has centered around him. Klitschko is a man Europe's leaders know and value, seeing him as a reliable figure whose integrity can be trusted.

So now we have a situation where the West has anointed Klitschko the new hero of the revolution, bound to eventually lead Ukraine toward Europe — rather than the path to Vladimir Putin's Russia that President Viktor Yanukovich has chosen.

But the former pugilist has rhetorical abilities that are uninspired at best, and lacks day-to-day experience in politics. Moreover, the European press does not seem to have considered the possibility that Ukrainians might see things differently.

The opposition is more than one man — and it's divided

The European Union is running the risk of repeating the same mistake it has made in the past, the very mistake that led to the failure of talks over signing a pact with Ukraine. Brussels and Berlin see the situation in Ukraine from a Eurocentric perspective and with a certain measure of self-satisfaction. To begin with, they fail to realize that the Ukrainian opposition is far more than one man.

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Dec. 1, 2013 protests in Kiev — Photo: Nessa Gnatoush

Although the opposition may call itself unified, its divisions fester just under the surface. The current cooperation is motivated by the knowledge that only by being united can opponents of the government take advantage of the current upheaval and bring about change in Ukraine.

But if and when the government does weaken and fall, if there are new elections, then it will be each for his own, and the factional disputes that Ukrainians know well will break out once again.

At the moment three opposition politicians always appear together: Klitschko, leader of Yulia Tymoshenko’s party, Arsenij Jaceniuk, and the nationalist Oleh Tyahnybok. However, most Europeans are not aware of this as their television screens are full of pictures of Klitschko alone. In addition to Jaceniuk and Tyahnybok, there is also Tymoshenko herself, who is still in prison but could be released if power changes hands. And there is a growing moderate movement within the regions’ ruling party, which could garner support from Eastern Ukraine — once again something the West doesn't take into account.

Still, even if more clarity is needed, Europe must not forget Klitschko, its anointed hero of the latest uprising. Like the other opposition leaders, he is placing himself in grave danger as the authorities continue to investigate many activists for alleged “plans to overthrow the government.”

It is difficult to imagine Klitschko, Jaceniuk and Tyahnybok being arrested, but at the moment it seems that anything is possible in Ukraine. While we may admire Klitschko, we must remember that he is not alone. The European Union may well support its man, but it should not forget that the whole Ukrainian opposition, and above all the Ukrainian people, also have a right to its help.

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