- - Sunday, March 9, 2014

KIEV, Ukraine — In early January, a tall man in a gray coat walked through the crowds in Kiev’s Independence Square. The atmosphere was electric. Three months of protests had resulted in deadly clashes between demonstrators and security forces. From Washington to Moscow, the world was waiting to see what would happen next.

A few in the crowd recognized the man. “Klitschko!” they shouted. “That’s Klitschko!”

Ukrainian opposition leader Vitali Klitschko, the 6-foot-7 former world heavyweight boxing champion, responded with characteristic humor.

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“No, I’m his brother,” he said before climbing onto a stage to address 10,000 people.

Mr. Klitschko’s younger brother, Wladimir, is the current world heavyweight boxing champion. Until recently, he was the sibling most likely to command vast audiences.

Lately, however, the attention has been squarely on the elder Mr. Klitschko, who is a serious contender to lead this Slavic country of nearly 45 million people.

Vitali Klitschko, 42, heads the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform, one of three opposition parties that came to power last month after street protests ousted President Viktor Yanukovych. The party’s acronym, UDAR, spells out “strike,” or “hit,” in Ukrainian.

Mr. Klitschko didn’t take a seat in the government he helped create. Instead, he announced soon after Mr. Yanukovych fled Kiev that he would run for president in the newly scheduled May 25 elections.

“The main fight of my life is going on today,” Mr. Klitschko told The Washington Times. “In politics, I’ve seen a lot — games without rules, dirty tricks, cunning. But I’m not used to giving up. I stayed in politics for the sake of my principles, for the goal that I had, and I was rewarded.

“I’ve seen Maidan [Independence Square]. I witnessed the courage and fortitude, braveness and self-sacrifice. This winter, I stood near real heroes — the people who wrote the new history of Ukraine under bullets.

“Our task today is to save Ukraine, save peace and sovereignty, unity and integrity, to build a new country,” he said. “I have no right to let these people down.”

Humble but cagey

His presidential announcement set the stage for a confrontation between Mr. Klitschko and the colossus of Ukrainian politics — the blond-braided Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister and Orange Revolution leader who was imprisoned in 2011 on a widely disputed abuse-of-power conviction. Parliament freed her late last month after the Yanukovych regime collapsed.

Mr. Klitschko entered politics eight years ago and won a seat on Kiev’s City Council. He ran twice for mayor unsuccessfully.

But he also organized UDAR, which two years ago won 14 percent of the vote, enough to become the third-largest party in parliament.

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