Vitali Klitschko, Ukraine’s heavyweight boxing champion and opposition leader in the city council talks about Kyiv’s major problems and personal ambitions.
Vitali Klitschko, the world’s heavyweight boxing champion, is the best in the ring. In the political ring, however, he has been no match for Mayor Leonid Chernovetsky, who has beaten him twice in municipal elections in the last four years.
Wearing jeans and a plain white shirt for an interview with the Kyiv Post, Klitschko took the same casual tone in his manners and speech, a rare feature for a celebrity and politician. He heads an eponymous bloc of 15 deputies in the 120-seat city council. His faction is a noisy and troublesome one for the mayor’s secretive and scheming majority – sometimes providing the only vocal official opposition to the way the city is run. The Kyiv Post asked Klitschko about his city battles and personal career.
KP: Your faction argues that city resources are misspent and that Chernovetsky is the one behind the shady schemes. But nobody has yet been held accountable. Why is that?
VK: I am not fighting against Chernovetsky as a person; I am fighting against the system he created to serve a close circle of people, instead of the Kyiv community. They divide properties, land and the city budget among themselves, all for personal gain. Kyiv has so many problems. It’s suffocating without roads and bridges, without four metro stations that were supposed to be built by now. Our  budget has Hr 6 billion in deficit. The ruling majority is very creative in distributing the state property among themselves. We don’t have draft laws to understand who gets the land. The land committee does not hold any hearings to discuss it. The land plots are coded on the agenda of the session to disguise beneficiaries. Journalists are not being admitted to the sessions. They sit in a separate room and only selected footage of certain people is broadcast for them. It’s one of many violations of procedures.
KP: How many of the council’s rulings are you disputing in courts? What evidence do you have?
VK: We worked together with the parliamentary commission [in the Verkhovna Rada] to record and investigate violations in Kyiv. There are piles of evidence, but sadly, authorities don’t have time for this now. We have filed 12 lawsuits, and have already won four, the rest are still going through the courts. Most importantly, we have managed to restore utility tariffs, unlawfully increased in May. Then, I am happy to say we won a case against Vechirniy Kyiv [city-owned] newspaper. They were publishing articles trying to imply that my features and strong physique are those of a typical racketeer. The municipal media holdings, therefore, used this association to say that instead of a career in sport, I may have been involved in some dodgy criminal schemes back in the 1990s.
KP: What are Kyiv’s weakest spots?
VK: This summer we saw the first signs of imminent man-induced disasters. Sludge fields near Kyiv were on fire, and if it were any hotter, it would have been a big problem. Also, sewage and water pipelines are constantly breaking and leaking across the city. Some of them have been installed half a century ago and need urgent replacement.
KP: Has your faction suggested a specific plan of action to fix the city's infrastructure problems?
VK: Of course, we have. Every session, we submit 20 to 30 draft laws on various issues. But they fall on deaf ears. So, during one of the latest sessions we had to block the rostrum physically to prevent the majority from distributing land through corrupt schemes. We wrote letters to the president, the prime minister, the [Verkhovna] Rada. The prosecutor’s office is like those three monkeys who hear no evil, speak no evil, and see no evil. And our courts are infamous for making decisions in favor of those whose bribes are bigger. I refuse to live by the rules of a banana republic. You can write letters, knock on doors, pick up flags and go protest but your calls will be left unanswered. I am in politics to change the system from within. I don’t need a badge with the mayor’s title on it. I know what living standards are like in civilized countries, and I want [to have] them in Kyiv.
KP: So, if you were elected mayor, what would your first five steps in the new job be?
First of all, I would like to make an inventory of everything there was in Kyiv before Chernovetsky’s team came to power and record all their violations. [Secondly,] I think those guilty should be held accountable through a public court hearing to prevent future politicians from wrongdoing. [The third issue to concentrate on is creation of ] modern infrastructure.
The fourth issue is we need a reform in the utility sector. The current system is left over from the Soviet Union, when the communal utility services, or ZHEK, is responsible for providing utilities. We need to change to a European model when households can nominate private companies to fix their heating or water pipes. Legally, this system is in place but it’s not working because ZHEK traditionally takes care of this sector and even if you use private contractors, you still have to pay ZHEKs for their services as well. If you miss your payments, you’ll be on the black list and may find one day your flat without electricity or water. Finally, the general plan of the capital’s development needs to be a proper lawful document. Right now everyone goes around it building houses in historical or green protected areas of the city.
KP: What about your team? Will you keep the same people on your list in the next election? Are you happy with their performance despite criticism that there are only two outspoken people in your faction, and the rest are there to take care of their own affairs?
VK: I have a professional team. I don’t think there are more professional people in the Kyiv council than deputies in my bloc. We have honorary financiers, lawyers, power engineers, etc. Some say that we have developers or other slimy people in my bloc. It’s not true. My problem is not my team. Vitali Klichko’s problem is that too few people believed that I could change things for the better in Kyiv. I try every day to prove otherwise.
KP: In the ideal world, who would you like to add to your team?
We need more than a human effort to clean up the mess in the city. I would like to have people with high morale. When I see deputies in the council that are supposed to act as highly intelligent and educated professionals, they act like looters instead.
Just like during a war, some people plunder the shops thinking they wouldn’t be caught. So, I will recruit people with professional skills and high morale.
KP: You have been disputing hikes on tariffs for the last couple of months. Some say it was a populist gesture, especially during the crisis. If you were a mayor, what unpopular decisions would you take?
If I have to make unpopular decisions, I will explain to the people of Kyiv why there are utility hikes or why we distribute land. When hot water and heating tariffs went up, it is clear why – because the gas price was increased. But when cold water tariff doubled, what was the reason behind it? The water in Desna [the river supplying Kyiv] suddenly got more expensive or is there less of it now? Currently, the mayor’s increasing tariffs without any reasoning and then after a few months, decides to cancel them in a pompous atmosphere.
KP: What’s your regular day like?
VK: During weekends, I go to Hamburg as I am in charge of the Klichko Management Group. It’s one of the most successful companies in Europe, which does sports and show management, as well as business consulting. I spend two and a half months abroad in a year.
As to my regular day, I wake up at 6:30 a.m., I am at the training by 7 or 7:30, breakfast at 8.30, and in one hour, I am in the office and the race up the hill begins.
KP: Please tell us more about your sources of income, how many companies do you own?
VK: In Ukraine, I have branches of our international company, K2 Promotions, headquartered in Los Angeles. We’re very globalized. I am not a poor person and have earned my money honestly. You could have seen it on screen. I am not hung up on labels. I have a small yacht. My brother gave it to me as a present. It’s nice to have a millionaire brother.
KP: You have a good selection of books in the office. Why, though, do you have Lenin and Stalin’s busts on the shelf, and not Che Guevara, for instance?
VK: Che Guevara is fashionable while Lenin and Stalin are conservative and interesting. But I am not a communist or a socialist. Lenin and Stalin are prominent historical figures. As to the books, you see those 30 volumes by Lenin – I read them all (he smiles).