Urbane liberals are joining black-booted skinheads to protest on the streets of Kiev, but if the Orange Revolution of nine years ago is to be repeated, they need a leader to unite them.
Enter Vitali Klitschko, a towering world boxing champion with a doctorate in sports science, who is looking increasingly like the opposition’s most powerful contender.
Protesters and commentators saw Klitschko emerging on Tuesday as a leader-in-waiting, as the opposition digs in to unseat Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych after he ditched a trade pact with the EU to revive economic ties with former Soviet master Moscow.
“I’d stand behind Klitschko,” said Grigory Parkhomenko, a 54-year-old retired factory worker at Kiev’s “opposition-occupied” city hall. “He’s earned his fortune with his hands, so he doesn’t need to steal from the people.”
Klitschko, the 2m tall WBC heavyweight champion known as “Dr Ironfist” because of his erudition, is sharing the stage with a bespectacled lawyer who frets about his poor public image and a surgeon who leads a combustible far-right nationalist group in an unlikely “troika” mounting a street challenge to Yanukovych’s leadership.
The outpouring of anger at Yanukovych’s rejection last month of a landmark accord to deepen ties with the EU echoes public anger at his fraudulent election victory in 2004, when mass protests overturned the result and, with it, Ukraine’s post-Soviet order.
The leader then was former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, whose electric personality and fiery speeches kept tens of thousands out in the streets through the bitterly cold winter of 2004-2005.
With Tymoshenko in jail, the disparate opposition alliance faces a challenge in maintaining momentum, and unity.
For successive weekends, calls by Klitschko, former Ukrainian minister of the economy Arseny Yatsenyuk and Oleh Tyahnybok, the leader of the nationalist Svoboda (Freedom) party, have brought out tens of thousands on to the streets over Yanukovych’s policy U-turn away from the West back toward Russia.
Tymoshenko’s supporters would naturally gravitate to her successor as party leader, Yatsenyuk, but may find common cause and ideology with Klitschko too. They are unlikely to see much hope in the hard-line nationalists.
Klitschko benefits from a perception he is uncorrupted, not a product of the discredited Ukrainian political system, but a national hero who lived abroad and made a fortune winning titles with his pile-driving punch.
In sport, he and younger brother Vladimir have towered over boxing for years. Despite being 42, he still holds one of the four world heavyweight crowns, while Vladimir holds the other three. Vitali last defended his crown last year, defeating a German challenger in a fight stopped after four rounds.
Despite an awkward public style, Klitschko exudes a quiet strength that plays well in Ukraine. He is emerging increasingly as the field commander of the protests and could be a common candidate to take on Yanukovych.
That might not sit well though with Yatsenyuk, 39, the most tested politician of the three, who took over leading Tymoshenko’s party in parliament and has led pressure for her release for months.
“Yatsenyuk is getting very nervous about the competition from Klitschko. He feels he is tugging the blanket to himself,” independent analyst Volodymyr Fesenko said.
“But the authority of Klitschko is growing. He has emerged as a street leader. He led the crowd and people followed him. It is the emergence of charisma — it is not everybody the crowds will follow,” he said.
Yatsenyuk and Klitschko’s liberal agendas starkly differ from the Ukrainian nationalism of Tyahnybok’s Svoboda, with its heavy anti-Russian overtones. Svoboda is seen by many Ukrainians as anti-Semitic and homphobic, which Tyahnybok denies.