President Viktor Yanukovych bought himself an insurance policy before all hell broke loose in Kiev. Last November, he outlawed the presidential candidacy of any individual who had the right of permanent residency in a foreign country and had not resided in Ukraine for the past 10 years. The target of this absurd law was obvious — Vitali Klitschko, reigning world heavyweight champion and leader of the new UDAR (‘Punch’) party that won 40 seats in the 2012 parliamentary elections.
National sports hero transcends party and regional divides
Klitschko held the World Boxing Council title for an amazing 9+ years, before vacating it last December during the first surge of protests in Kiev. As a national sports hero, Klitschko’s appeal crosses party and regional lines. Also, the fact that he made his fortune honestly, in the ring, has lifted him above suspicions of corruption that dog almost every Ukrainian politician. It isn’t hard to understand why Yanukovych would consider him a threat in the elections scheduled for 2015.
To build his boxing career, Klitsckho became a resident of Germany, the site of all but one of his first 20 professional fights. (The other was in Austria). Last Sunday, Klitschko surrendered his right to permanent residency in Germany. Yet he has only resided in Ukraine for the past 7 years, falling short of the 10 required by law.
At least for the moment, President Yanukovych has resigned himself to early elections and the formation of a caretaker government. While a raft of measures will be required to ensure that such elections are free and fair, repealing the anti-Klitschko law is a priority. His leadership during the crisis has been outstanding. He has remained committed to peaceful protest, while showing a solid sense of when to demand more and when to seek compromise.
Of course, no one ever thought that Klitschko was just a slab of meat with punching power. He has the equivalent of a Ph.D. in sports science, hence the nickname ‘Dr. Ironfist’. He is also an avid chess player. Still, this was no guarantee that he could lead in a moment of crisis, which he has now proven. In addition to ending the crisis in Kiev, a successful leader must repair the pervasive damage that the Yanukovych regime has done to democracy in Ukraine.