The Boxer Politician
Last Thursday I sat in a packed Columbia University auditorium listening to a speech by the current WBC world heavyweight champion, Vitali Klitschko. Klitschko towered over the podium (which seemed almost toy-like beneath him). He is the first boxing world champion with a Ph.D., but he was not with us to talk about sports—he came to Columbia because he’s a politician. His party, the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform, bears the clever acronym UDAR, which means to “hit” or “punch” in both Ukrainian and Russian. Its goal, says Klitschko, is to modernize Ukraine.
The humungous boxer-politician discussed the lack of positive, democratic change in his country over the twenty years since its independence. Coincidentally, he was speaking just two days after yet another reaffirmation that the Ukrainian democratic experiment had (so far) failed: Yulia Tymoshenko, the beloved (but controversial) former prime minister of Ukraine, was sentenced to seven years in prison for “exceeding her authority while brokering a gas deal with Russia” in 2009.
Tymoshenko has been a longtime adversary of the Ukrainian President Viktor Yunakovich, and both Western and Russian media suggest that she was imprisoned for political motives. (If you don’t know much about Ukrainian politics, you probably remember her, or at least her braid—a blonde halo that sat like a wreath atop her head. She was often compared to the Slavic folkloric goddess Berehynia. Portraits of her hung on walls all over Ukraine, someone built a monument of her, and she made it on the cover of Ukrainian Elle.)
When Tymoshenko was first detained two months ago, Klitshchko suspended his boxing training and offered to put up her bail. He now stood before us saying that Ukrainian leaders have to stop persecuting the opposition and start engaging it.
I watched him lean on the podium; like Tymoshenko, he was attractive (and charming). He stood there with confidence, and seemed to think himself capable of infiltrating the political sphere and turning his country around. It’s been twenty years since the Soviet Union has collapsed and his country is still a mess. He doesn’t want to wait another twenty for things to change. He said that for real change, there needs to be political will; he claims he has that will, and that he can muster it up in the Ukrainian people.
It was difficult for me to feel hopeful listening to him. I’m pretty jaded from hearing opposition politicians from authoritarian post-Soviet countries—they tend to say the same thing and then either disappear from the scene or operate very marginally within the framework of the current political sphere. And if they do actually make it into power, usually, very little changes. Will this handsome boxer ever be able to come to power in Ukraine? Can he change things? Will his hands be tied by corruption? Obviously nobody knows.
Klitschko’s optimism about his ability to change Ukrainian politics seems to be fueled by his success as a boxer. He told an inspiring anecdote from 1986, about a group of teenage boys crowding around a TV in an apartment in Kiev. The group was made up of Klitschko and his friends, and they were watching a boxing world championship for the first time (in the Soviet Union professional boxing was forbidden, and now, during Perestroika, they could finally watch the foreign matches on TV). That year, the youngest heavyweight won world title. It was Mike Tyson.
After the match, Klitschko looked up at his friends and told them that, one day, he too would win a boxing world championship. He had only just started boxing back then. His friends made fun of him. “They looked at me, I was so skinny, then they looked back at the muscle machine Tyson, and laughed very hard.”
In 1999, Klitschko won the world championship; he gathered those same friends in a room in Kiev to watch.
“It’s not just important to have a dream; what’s important is to work very hard to make dream come true,” Klitschko said. His dream, he said, is a modern, democratic Ukraine.
What I found most interesting about Klitschko’s talk, though, was not so much what he said, but something he didn’t say—Klitschko did not mention Russia during his speech.
I’ve never been to a lecture by a Ukrainian politician where Russia was not a talking point and I wondered if this was something of a sign, an indicator that Ukraine was letting go of Russia and focusing more on its internal interests.
When the pro-Russian Yanukovich was elected over the West-leaning Tymoshenko in 2010, it was seen as a victory for Russia. And now, many see Tymoshenko’s sentence as a confrontation between Russia and the West. They think that by exhibiting such obviously authoritarian behavior, Ukraine will drift even further into Russia’s camp (Putin has been urging Ukraine to step into a Eurasian Union).
I’m not sure that it’s as simple as that. Yanukovich has his own interests to worry about, and it seems to me, that instead of moving closer to Russia, Ukraine has been tangled up in its own political problems. Tymoshenko’s sentence is just as much of a slap in the face to Russia as to Europe—it’s about a deal Putin signed, one that was brokered more or less in Russia’s favor. And like the EU, Putin is publicly condemning it (though for different reasons—he is upset about Ukraine questioning the gas agreement).
If anything, the Tymoshenko scandal, shows that there are things going on in Ukraine that are beneath the surface and probably have nothing to do with Russia or any external force. Yanukovich seems torn; he has just submitted a new draft of the criminal code to the Parliament, which will lighten the punishment for financial crime (he did this without specifically referencing the Tymoshenko case). He has also stressed that the ruling isn’t final (it is now in the Court of Appeals).
Klitschko didn’t discuss any of this, though; he discussed his own vision. When he was done, I watched the audience gather around him. People were asking for autographs, to take photos with him; shoving their old boxing t-shirts in his face so he could sign them (I must admit, I was in that crowd, because come on, when else am I going to get to meet the world heavyweight champion?). I was thinking, all these people appear to love him, worship him (they also worshiped Tymoshenko)—but will any of it matter? Will he be able to turn his dream into reality and rescue a country that seems so desperately screwed? Or will he end up like Tymoshenko, thrown into prison one day, no one knowing the exact motivations behind how he ended up there.