Boxing hero 'Dr Ironfist' emerges as leader of Ukraine protesters
Towering over his fellow protest leaders, reigning world heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko has emerged as Ukraine's most popular opposition figure and has ambitions to become its next president.
Thanks to his sports-hero status and his reputation of being a new pro-Western politician untainted by Ukraine's frequent corruption scandals, Mr Klitschko (42) has surpassed jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko in opinion polls.
As massive anti-government protests continue to grip Ukraine, Mr Klitschko is urging his countrymen to continue their fight to turn this ex-Soviet republic into a genuine Western democracy.
"This is not a revolution. It is a peaceful protest that demands justice," Mr Klitschko said last night. "The people are not defending political interests. They are defending the idea of living in a civilised country."
Mr Klitschko was one of a few opposition politicians who tried to stop several hundred protesters from storming president Viktor Yanukovych's office during a demonstration on Sunday that drew hundreds of thousands to the streets of Kiev, the capital.
As the boxer called for peace, the jubilant crowd chanted his name.
Yesterday, his party was one of several opposition parties to blockade the Ukrainian parliament as part of a nationwide strike. The angry protests were sparked by the president's abrupt decision last month to ditch a political and economic treaty with the EU after several years of preparations and to focus on ties with Russia instead. Russia has been threatening Ukraine with economic trading consequences if the country signs the EU deal.
The demonstrations in Kiev were galvanised when Mr Yanukovych's government sent in riot police to break up a small, peaceful rally in the middle of the night, injuring dozens.
"They took away people's hope to implement reforms, to change the situation in the country," Mr Klitschko told reporters. "They stole our hope."
Now he must prove that he has as much stamina in the political arena as he does in the boxing ring. In more than 15 years as a professional boxer, Mr Klitschko has scored 45 victories in 47 fights, 41 on them with knockouts, earning the nickname 'Dr Ironfist'.
Despite earning a doctorate in sports science, he has had to fight a stereotype of being intellectually unfit to run this economically troubled country of 46 million.
Having been raised in a Russian-speaking family, Mr Klitschko just recently learned Ukrainian and sometimes struggles to find the right word.
But at the same time, he appeals to many Ukrainians, with his air of sincerity and his image of a handsome tough guy ready to defend his compatriots.
"He is a national hero and comes across as being decent," said Andreas Umland, assistant professor of European studies at the Kyiv Mohyla Academy.