Sunday, 28 April 2013
Vitali Klitschko: Can Boxing's 'Dr Ironfist' Become The Next President Of Ukraine?
KIEV, Ukraine -- At the end of a hotel bar in central London is an object that, momentarily, resists identification. It could be the back of a gigantic beshadowed human being. Or it could be a freezer with a melon on top of it. Only when the object moves do I realise that, despite the apparently impossible proportions, it’s him: the Ukrainian Vitali Klitschko, the 6ft 7.5in world heavyweight boxing champion-turned-politician now aiming to become president of one of the most hostile and treacherous political systems on the planet. Klitschko’s only visiting London briefly and I’m one of a few journalists to have been granted a brief audience. I’m early, and the reporter who had the slot before me is still buttoning up her coat. She seems rather flustered and is grinning at him dreamily. To be honest, it’s hard to blame her. Klitschko is intensely handsome, his face all deep angles and epic bones. But there’s also a surprising softness to him, a velvety quality to his smile and a luxuriant slowness in the way he moves his limbs. When I eventually sit in front of him, there is a sense of great power in repose. It’s like watching a panther snoozing in the sun. Klitschko has had an amazing life; two amazing lives, in fact. His first incarnation, alongside his equally fearsome brother, Wladimir, is that of sporting megastar. The first siblings ever to have held world boxing titles at the same time, both are considered to be among the greatest heavyweights of the modern age. Vitali has won 45 of his 47 bouts, 41 by a knock out. Klitschko officially retired on November 9 2005, before un-retiring himself again two years later. Although he’s still officially the WBC world heavyweight champion (while Wladimir holds the WBA, IBF and WBO belts) he hasn’t fought for six months – a situation which British fighter David Haye, who’s been baiting the Klitschko brothers for years, would apparently like to change. After losing to Wladimir on points in 2011, Haye claims to be desperate to step into the ring with the elder sibling, telling sports writers that, “I’m too fast, too sexy and too talented to be blown away by a large, slow robot from Ukraine.” But, while insisting that he remains “the best in the world”, Vitali is now 41 and equivocates when asked whether he intends to keep fighting. He has, however, ruled out the possibility of fighting 32-year-old Haye. For one thing, he says that, when offered the chance of a bout in 2011, Haye failed to sign the contract. And he’s certainly not going to be doing any favours for the Briton: in the run up to his encounter with Wladimir, Haye wore a T-shirt that bore an image of him holding both Klitschkos’ severed heads. Wladimir called him an “embarrassment to boxing”, a remark that served to underscore the differences between the pugnacious Haye and the cerebral Klitschkos. Vitali, nicknamed “Dr Ironfist”, has a PhD, and both men speak a multitude of languages. Similarly, Vitali also rejects the possibility of ever taking part in what would surely be one of the most emotionally dramatic and compelling bouts ever staged: a fight between the brothers. Such an event, he has said, would “break the heart of my mother”. It might also break his own. The siblings are famously close. Their father was an officer in the Soviet air force, and raised them, with his wife, Nadia, at an airbase in Kiev. At home, where all four Klitschkos shared a single room and kitchen, Wladimir Snr imposed strict discipline and punished his sons regularly with the belt. Vitali was tall and skinny at school, and the target of bullies. Shortly before his death from cancer in 2011, Vitali’s father told a documentary crew, “I drummed it into him that he had to fight. Losing was not an option.” Growing up, the pair worshipped Bruce Lee and Arnold Schwarzenegger. They attended kick-boxing classes which, as it was seen as a Western pollution of martial arts, was forbidden. They would spar with each other and, being five years Wladimir’s senior, Vitali would usually win, although both would end up bloodied. Today, Vitali regards those days as a “sign from God” that the two should never fight. It was Vitali’s fighting, and the opportunity it presented him to travel outside the Soviet Union, that ultimately led him to the life he wants to talk about today. His new fight is on behalf of Ukraine, his stated mission: to take one of the world’s most corrupt countries, known best for its fixed elections and parliament punch ups, and turn it into a modern, functioning, democratic member of the EU. “Many times, I had the chance to see many different countries,” he says. “And always when I come back to Ukraine I ask why is it that very simple things that work around the world don’t work in my home country? And slowly I started to understand. Many politicians are not interested to make a change in our country. That’s why I came to this idea. We need to create a European country.” As a youngster, Vitali was convinced that Ukraine was already the world’s greatest nation. His parents would tell him how the capitalist leaders used their citizens as slaves while, at school, the pupils would spend time every morning writing lists of all the bad things they could think of about the United States. But after he was actually offered the chance to visit the US, the lie could no longer bear scrutiny. In the 2011 documentary, Klitschko, directed by the German film-maker Sebastian Dehnhardt, Vitali memorably recounted his first enraptured impressions of America. “How can there be 100 types of cheese?” he recalled thinking. “That’s madness. There’s only one type of cheese. It’s called cheese.” He wanted to drink an entire bucket of Coca-Cola; to stand in the middle of a shopping mall and just smell it. It was, he says, like “going to the moon”. When he returned home, he informed his father that everything they’d been told about capitalism was untrue. His dad rejected the view. “He said, ‘it’s a show put on especially for you," Vitali tells me now. "They show you some nice places and, after that, use you as propaganda." When communism dribbled to a halt, in 1991, Klitschko expected Ukraine to become an ordinary capitalist country. But a healthy free market economy, with public employees on one side and private business owners on the other, wasn’t properly established. Hence today, powerful politicians and glitteringly wealthy profit-makers tend to be the same people. In Ukraine, as in many former Soviet states, public resources are routinely used for private gain. “If you look at [the anti-corruption organisation] Transparency International, Ukraine comes out as the most corrupt country in Europe,” says Dr Sarah Whitmore, senior lecturer in politics at Oxford Brookes University. “And the state is the main source of that corruption because it’s the main source of wealth. There are very few people with clean hands in places of power in Ukraine. Very few.” Klitschko formed his party, the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform (the acronym of which, UDAR, means “punch” in Ukrainian) to solve these chronic and institutional problems. And, as the third largest faction in parliament, the party provides its leader with a good base to become president in the 2015 general election. “It’s corruption that destroys our economy,” Klitschko tells me. “Many investors are afraid to come into it. Secondly, there’s no competition. "Thirdly, in most countries, more than 60 per cent of the budget comes from taxes from small and middle businesses. In Ukraine, it’s less than 10 per cent. That’s why our economy doesn’t work. We have to change that. The first step will be to destroy corruption.” It might not be so easy. The last man who promised to drag Ukraine westward, and to exorcise corruption, was Viktor Yushchenko. He ended up on the losing end of a fixed election, on the verge of death, with a catheter in his spine, his face blackened and pocked by the poison dioxin. Does Klitschko worry that he’ll end up dead or, like Yushchenko’s equally ambitious prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, imprisoned on spurious charges? “It’s true that politics is a dirty game, especially in Ukraine,” he says. “They play with no rules. And we want to make rules. But my main interest has to be the millions of Ukranians and the interest of the country.” Such idealism, however, might count for nothing if he attempts to reform the wrong sort of people. It’s still not known who was behind the attempted assassination of Yushchenko, although historian and Vladimir Putin biographer Yuri Felshtinsky believes it was organised by the Russian security service, the FSB. “It’s difficult to prove, but the person who was accused, the Ukrainian secret service officer Volodymyr Satsyuk, has received political asylum in Russia,” he says. Suspicions of Russian involvement are not soothed by the fact that Putin himself went to extraordinary lengths to secure the election of his rival, the eastwards-looking Viktor Yanukovych. While in London, is Klitschko not scared he could be assassinated by the shadowy Russian figures that flit around the city? Klitschko grins and lifts the cup he’s been drinking from. “Tea!” he says. “You’ve been thinking about Litvinenko!” His two assistants giggle at the reference to the former FSB agent, Alexander Litvinenko, who was murdered by radioactive tea in 2006 at the Millennium Hotel, just one mile from where we are sitting. “I have a feeling you’re…” he confers with his neighbour, checking the right word. “Paranoid!” But surely Putin doesn’t want a westward-leaning Ukraine? “Russia is not our enemy. Russia is a different country. You overestimate the power of Putin in Ukraine,” he says. Practicalities, then. How will this anti-corruption drive actually work? Let’s start with the state services – the police and security agencies. How do you clean decades of human muck from those vast, intricate hierarchies? “You reload the system,” he says. “I understand this will not be a popular decision, but I can’t see another way. We investigate, fire the old people, bring in new staff and pay good wages. And we have one law for everybody.” This sounds simplistic. After so many years of rot, how many incorruptible police officers can there possibly be? How do you find the good ones? “It will be by personal selection,” he says. “Like in Georgia. Maybe it’s a bad example, but in one day, in Georgia, the whole police force was fired.” So he’d sack the whole of the police? “Yeah,” he says. Klitschko pauses. “Well,” he says, apparently thinking again, “I don’t think the example of Georgia would work in Ukraine. But it’s working in Georgia! It’s working!” It’s hard to know if Klitschko is really as oblivious as he seems to the dangers of his plan. Clearly, he’s taking his fight to ruthless people, with riches to protect. Perhaps the self-confidence he’s gathered as a boxer has given him an exaggerated sense of his own invulnerability? “I can’t be alone,” he says. “That’s why I do it with a team. Alone, it’s not important how strong you are – if you’re alone, you’re weak. I am not alone.” Yushchenko wasn’t alone, I point out, and he was nearly killed. There’s a silence. His eyes bear down at me. “Thousands, millions of Ukrainians support us,” he says. “And I’m not afraid to fight.” Which is exactly why the corrupt agencies that he’s seeking to “reload” must be concerned. I ask Klitschko if his phones are tapped. He nods at the mobile in front of him. “I know that,” he says. When I ask him if his family is afraid, he smiles. (Klitschko is married to Natalia Egorova, a former athlete and model, and has three children.) “It’s better not to explain to my family,” he says. “My children don’t realise what I’m doing.” Up until now, Klitschko has been sitting back in his chair, his left arm on the table, his body facing slightly away from me. When I press him, for one final time, to acknowledge the perils that he’s inviting into his life, he turns, leans forward and faces me squarely, his brow lowering, his jaw squeezing. “In professional boxing,” he says, “if you go inside the ring and you’re not ready to give your life, you will never be the best. But you have to be prepared. You need good defence. "You have to know your skills. And must never give your opponent a chance to attack you. It’s exactly the same in politics. "If you prepare well, have a good team around you and know the idea you’re fighting for, you will be successful. But a very important point: you always have to be ready to give everything to achieve your goal.” Including your life? He nods. “Including your life.”