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Boxing Champ Klitschko Pulls No Punches In Ukraine's Political Ring

WBC heavyweight boxing champion-turned-politician Vitali Klitschko puts in some face time with prospective voters in mid-October.
WBC heavyweight boxing champion-turned-politician Vitali Klitschko puts in some face time with prospective voters in mid-October.
VYSHNEVE, Ukraine -- Loud cheers pierce the nighttime quiet in the small town of Vyshneve as the hulking figure of Vitali Klitschko climbs up onto a lit stage before a few thousand fans and supporters.

It's the home stretch of Ukraine's parliamentary elections and Klitschko, the reigning world heavyweight boxing champion, has come to this Kyiv suburb of 35,000 to campaign for his upstart opposition party, Udar, which means "punch" in Ukrainian.

Klitschko talks about fighting corruption, increasing living standards, and transforming Ukraine from a "Third World country" that "70 percent of young Ukrainians dream of leaving” into a true European power.

"I stand before you today not as a sportsman but as the leader of a political force," he tells the crowd. "We are declaring a battle for Ukraine and we will do everything to win it -- and we will win it because we are fighting for the truth!"

The October 28 elections aren't Klitschko's first foray into politics -- he twice ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Kyiv -- but analysts say this time his campaign increasingly has the feel of a winner.

Recent polls show Udar (which is also an acronym for the Ukrainian Alliance for Democratic Reforms) moving into second place, passing the United Opposition coalition backed by jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. And, with 16 percent support, Udar also appears to be closing in on President Viktor Yanukovych's ruling Party of Regions, whose support, currently at 23 percent, seems to be receding in recent months.

A Fresh Face

Part of Klitschko's appeal, of course, comes from the glow of being a world famous athlete. But part of it also stems from a hunger for fresh faces among the Ukrainian electorate.

Bohdan Tershovskyi, a 61-year-old pensioner from Vyshneve, says Klitschko stands out as a trusted figure in a field of largely discredited politicians.

"He is speaking the truth, but Lord please allow him to actually make what he is saying a reality and for everyone to get behind him," Tershovskyi says. "The level of corruption has got to such a level that it is terrible even to talk about it. The state is corrupt. It’s awful. In Poland they are laughing at us."

Other than his unsuccessful mayoral bids, Klitschko's only political experience is a couple of stints on Kyiv's city council.

Supporters say this is an asset because he is untainted by associations with either the ruling Party of Regions or the pro-Western camp that came to power in the 2004 Orange Revolution -- both of which failed to deliver on their promises in the eyes of many voters.

Klitschko has ruled out any alliance with the Party of Regions, and said he is deferring any decision on teaming up with the United Opposition until after the ballot.

In Borodyanka, a rundown town of 13,000, Serhii Sviridiyenko, a 55-year-old unemployed man grins through gold teeth and explains how he hopes Klitschko can finally unite the country's famously fractured opposition.

"Lord, help us agree with one another and unite," he says. "We will be stronger together. Then we can deliver the knock-out blow [to the Party of Regions]!"

Short On Specifics

Klitschko's dearth of political experience, however, could also be a liability, analysts say. Many wonder whether he will prove savvy enough to hold his party together after the elections amid the horse trading, jockeying, and party switching that often takes place in the Ukrainian parliament.

His campaign is short on specifics beyond pledging to enforce the rule of law, send corrupt politicians to jail, and bring Ukraine into Europe

He also says he will bring in a younger cadre of political leaders. But critics note that Udar's party list contains many former members of the Party of Regions who could be inclined to switch parties after the elections.

"He has good chances, but also people are saying that it is one thing to be a good sportsman and very famous, and another thing to be in politics," says Olga Shumylo-Tapiola, a Ukraine specialist at the Carnegie Center for International Peace.

"I’m not a hundred-percent convinced sure he will be very successful.”

Born in Soviet-era Kyrgyzstan, Klitschko moved with his parents and younger brother, Volodymyr, to Ukraine, where both began their sporting careers in kickboxing before moving on to traditional boxing.

Now 41 years old and at the twilight of his career, Klitschko has won 44 of his 46 professional fights -- 40 of them by knockout. He is currently the reigning World Boxing Council (WBC) heavyweight champion.

Klitschko was named a "Hero of Ukraine" in 2004. The following year he formed a party called "European Capital" to support his unsuccessful bid to become Kyiv's mayor. The party was later renamed Udar.

As Klitschko's convoy of Volkswagen minibuses rolls through the colorful foliage of the autumn countryside in Kyiv Oblast, he is greeted by throngs of enthusiastic supporters at every stop.

But what remains unclear is whether the crowds are there to bask in his star power, or to hear his political message.

Bohdan Nikolayev, a 17-year-old student from the town of Irpin, points to a block of dilapidated apartment buildings and says politicians "promise loads and don't do anything."

But he lights up when he thinks he might meet Klitschko.

"It’d be great to shake his hand and have my picture taken with him!," he says. "I’m hoping I can – maybe it’s possible, maybe not. We’ll have to see, but really it would be great to have a photo taken with him.”

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