Interview

'What Is Happening in Ukraine Is Dangerous for Russia'

Ukrainian opposition leader Vitali Klitschko on what his country really needs from the West and why Putin's politics just don't make sense.

The headquarters of the Ukrainian opposition party, the United Democratic Alliance for Reform (UDAR), are located in an inconspicuous brick building on a pleasant street in central Kiev. A single Ukrainian flag hangs over the entryway -- the only clue as to the building's political significance. The party won 40 seats in the 2012 parliamentary elections and it is a growing national force, popular with Ukraine's youth and its pro-European intelligentsia.

Inside, leader of the UDAR, Vitali Klitschko stands six foot and seven inches tall, dominating the conference room. Foreign Policy met with the former world heavyweight boxing champion turned politician on April 24 to discuss Ukraine's growing crisis. The acronym UDAR means "punch" in Ukrainian and it is indicative of the way Klitschko has spent almost the past ten years using his global celebrity status to transform himself from an internationally known athlete into one of Ukraine's leading politicians. Klitschko had been considered to be a contender for the upcoming presidential elections on May 25, but he decided to focus his attention on running for mayor of Kiev instead.

During the Euromaidan revolution that overthrew President Viktor Yanukovych in February, Klitschko was an almost continuous presence in Independence Square -- known in Ukraine as Maidan Nezalezhnosti. What began as a peaceful protest against Yanukovych's ultimate refusal to strengthen ties with Europe by signing an European Union Association Agreement (opting instead to take a $15 billion loan and reduced gas-price agreement with Russian President Vladimir Putin) turned into outright rebellion after government forces used violence against protestors.

In this small conference room, Klitschko positively looms over the table, leaning forward frequently to emphasize his points. Next to him sits a member of his entourage who scribbles notes throughout. Also in the room are the interviewer's assistant and translator, whose services Klitschko declines, opting instead to speak in English to "save time." (Still, at various points in the interview, when he struggles for the right phrasing or cannot remember a word, he turns to the translator for clarification.)

Throughout the interview his giant hands rest almost delicately on the table. As he talks, Klitschko makes intense and consistent eye contact. At times his voice rises passionately, but his words are always measured; he is careful about what he says. 

Foreign Policy: First let's talk about Maidan. What was its single biggest achievement? 

Vitali Klitschko: It's vital to democracy for civil society to show that it has power. Everyone, even a president has to listen. That was actually [Viktor] Yanukovych's motto: "I listen to everyone." Maidan stayed peaceful for two months but it was clear that the president wasn't listening; that he wasn't seeing; that he wasn't paying attention to the people. Then it got worse; he sent in the riot police to "cleanse" Maidan. 

It's critical for politicians to talk to the people, to find a solution and a compromise. Yanukovych didn't want to do that and the results [of Maidan] stemmed from that. 

Maidan showed the strength of the Ukrainian society. The people said that they had had enough of living without rules; enough of living with corruption; enough of living without a future. They rose up and they overthrew the president, who we later discovered lived in a virtual world. When the people visited his home they discovered that he had an entire loaf of bread made from solid gold -- and many of these people don't have enough real bread to eat.

FP: So the entire system was wrong?

VK: The system was totally corrupt. It didn't serve society; it was a pyramid with the president at the top.

I often tell a story about why I wanted to smash the system. My father was an Air Force officer and he died because he spent a lot of time working in Chernobyl. My mother was able to receive compensation: ten months salary. She was told she would get the money but only if she would have to give 50 percent as a "kickback." I found the letter detailing this and asked her about it. She told me that if she hadn't paid, she would have got nothing.

There are thousands, hundreds of thousands, of similar examples. What did my father die for? We need justice here. The people came to Maidan to find justice -- to create a society with rules. And it set a precedent. If someone comes to power now and they don't listen to the people the same thing can happen again. 

FP: Moving to current events. Do you think Russia is behind what is happening in East Ukraine? 

VK: Yes. There are numerous examples of this. I was recently in East Ukraine and spoke to many Russians who had come there -- I call them "political tourists." They told me, "We want to support the Russian-speaking community in the East of Ukraine because Maidan radicals want to [threaten] them."

I was at Maidan. I am Russian-speaking. My mother is Russian. I am not a radical. Where does this come from? Why is there instability in the East of Ukraine? Because of the huge influence of Russian media -- their propaganda works is [relentless]. Just a couple of days ago I watched Russian TV and I was shocked. They do things very professionally. And in East Ukraine they watch [a lot of] Russian TV and it has [a] huge influence. They claim radical and nationalists are trying to threaten the [speaking of the] Russian language here.

Language? We have to support Russian language? Sorry, in East Ukraine, only 54 percent of schools are Ukrainian speaking. Every parent has the right to choose which school they send their children to. In Crimea there are 650 schools, just seven of them are Ukrainian-speaking. And people say we are threatening the speaking of Russian? It's just propaganda. It's not true.

Right now the people who lost power -- the [Ukrainian] politicians -- are trying to use propaganda to try to divide the country. No one in Ukraine who speaks Russian is under threat or is unable to speak Russian in any part of the country. Equally, no one Ukrainian-speaking has a problem speaking Ukrainian in any part of the county.

[These] politicians talk about language, nationality, and history. These questions aren't important now. What is important are jobs, social standards, the future. Our people don't believe in the future. Seven million Ukrainians are living outside Ukraine; 70 percent of our youth dream of leaving the country. We have to change our standards of living. And we can do it.

We want to sign the EU Association agreement. We want to start European reforms, justice reforms, police reforms. We have to implement numerous reforms and open up the economy for small businesses because right now we have a system of monopolies. We can create more jobs; we can increase the budget -- it can work.

We have huge problems with the Ukrainian economy. Let me give you a number. I speak emotionally but numbers don't have emotions. Just a couple of weeks ago, I Googled some interesting facts: Ukraine is just 0.5 percent of the world's territory but we have 36 percent of world's reserves of black soil. Can you imagine? And this in a country where many people don't have enough to eat, and are just trying to survive. Something is wrong. This is why we need reform.

We need to change a lot of things in Ukraine -- we have the chance right now and it is critical that we take that chance. In 2004, after the Orange Revolution, people dreamed of making changes but were ultimately disappointed because the politicians who promised that [went back on their promises] and nothing was done. We can't make the same mistakes we did ten years ago.

FP: Why do you think Russia is doing what it is doing in the East? 

VK: Because what is happening in Ukraine is dangerous for Russia. It sets an example: Ukraine has shown the positive results of its revolution in a very short space of time. This can be an example to others. 

FP: What action should be taken to deal with the separatists? What should be done to resolve the situation?

VK: First of all, we have to try to talk to people, to try to change their opinions and to find a compromise. We will discuss issues like the decentralization of budgets, more rights for local communities, and decentralization of power. We have to talk -- if they want to talk in Russian, let's do it. We have around 70 nationalities in Ukraine; here we speak Bulgarian, Ukrainian, Hungarian, and some regions don't even speak Russian or Ukrainian but local dialects. But the main language should be Ukrainian -- that's our clear vision. We support every language.

FP: But you have military people in the East now? How are you going to resolve the situation there now?

VK: If people aren't ready to find a compromise, if they aren't ready to talk and want to create separate republics and leave Ukraine -- not whole regions just small sections of the population who have occupied the government buildings -- we have to defend the country. Are they using legal or illegal weapons? Illegal. We have to return the weapons to the police -- if they refuse to do that we have no choice but to act.

FP: So the army will have to do it? 

VK: [Let me give you] a few figures: There are 300,000 Ukrainian police officers. We have just 100,000 soldiers. We have a strong enough police force that we don't need to use the army.

FP: Do you think Putin will stop?

VK: I don't understand Putin's politics. Ukrainians and Russians are very close: We have so much in common. White Russia: Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia have huge ties, and he is trying to divide us all with this idea of a "great empire." Why is he doing this? I speak to many Russians and they are angry at Ukraine; Putin has 80 percent approval ratings. Why? Propaganda.

FP: So you think Putin wants to establish a new Russian Empire?

VK: I don't think I know. He said it, openly. He said Crimea was always Russian territory. Now is he going to say East Ukraine was always Russian territory? Kiev is the "mother of Russian cities" -- is that next? The next step will be Poland -- it, too, used to be a part of the Russian Empire. 

FP: So you think that if he is not stopped he will continue?

VK: I don't know but what he is doing is not logical. It's [all based on] a sick idea of rebuilding an empire.

FP: What action would you like to see the international community now take against Russia?

VK: They have to support our independence. In the 1994 Budapest Agreement the U.S., Great Britain, Russia, France, and China all guaranteed Ukraine's independence when we gave up our nuclear weapons. We need a guarantee. If this doesn't happen the only way to stop Putin will be nuclear war.

FP: Should more sanctions be placed on Russia? What would you like to see happen? 

VK: Sanctions are a good way to deal with Russia. I watch Russian propaganda: It says the U.S. has a bad economy, that it's a bad country, that is has no human rights. It says that the EU is on the point of collapse. If this is the case, why do Russians send their children to be educated in Europe? Why do Russians with health problems immediately fly to Germany or France or Great Britain? Why do they buy real estate there and take their holidays there? They enjoy the European lifestyle and yet they criticize it. 

[The benefits of EU membership can be seen with] Poland. Ten years ago Poland's GDP was three times less than Ukraine's. Now the situation has been reversed. If you drive through Poland you can see the improved infrastructure everywhere -- in ten years they have made huge strides. Ukraine has a lot in common with Poland -- territory, population, mentality, etc. It is a good example for us. But geopolitical interests are preventing us from achieving this.

FP: So what increased support would you like to see from the United States?

VK: We need support across the board. We need political support; we need financial support; we need technological support. We would greatly appreciate weapons support from the United States.

FP: So do you foresee that there might be an armed conflict in the future?

VK: I hope not. I can't imagine fighting my relatives -- to kill my brothers. But history shows that so many wars are wars between brothers. I don't even want to think about that and I hope we find a political solution.

FP: But how do you find it with Putin when he doesn't seem to want one?

VK: The whole world has to keep its attention on the situation here. What is happening here is a precedent and the world needs to take note. What is happening to us can happen to anyone. 

FP: Agreed. So what is the best way to stop Russia now?

VK: We have to talk about political and economic sanctions.

FP: Have the sanctions so far been sufficient or do they need to be increased?

VK: If Russia continues we have to go a new level of financial and political sanctions.

FP: How can NATO help in this crisis?

VK: It is now abundantly clear that our decision to become a non-aligned state was a mistake...

FP: ... So you think Ukraine should join NATO?

VK: Russia has taken the decision for us. It has driven us into NATO.

FP: Will it be possible for Ukraine to join NATO?

VK: I don't want to talk about that because it's like waving a red flag under Russia's nose.

FP: Is joining the EU still possible? 

VK: I am very pro-European and as I said before Russians enjoy Europe very much. Whenever I speak to Russians about the Ukraine-EU issue, I always say: "We are doing everything we can to bring Europe closer to you! It will make it easier for you to enjoy your European luxuries!"

FP: You've talked about the importance of the upcoming presidential elections on May 25. Do you think Russia is trying to destabilize the elections? 

VK: I am more than sure. Russia constantly says our current government is not legitimate. These elections are one way to legitimize the government and stabilize the country. Russia is trying to destabilize them in two ways. First, by conducting a media war on the elections. They lie about the situation here in Ukraine, and they do it very professionally. And second, by its actions in East Ukraine. We have discovered so many Russian military experts working with the separatists and we see how he lies. He claimed he had no idea who the armed "green men" were [in Crimea] and then one day he said, "Oh, sorry, they were Russian soldiers after all, there to support the Russian-speaking population."

FP: What do you think of the accusations of fascism again the Ukraine government? Both sides call the other "fascists."

VK: It's all artificial. The same politicians are trying to play on sore topics.

FP: Why is this an especially sore topic in Ukraine?

VK: [Long pause.] We never ever had right-wing radicals here but against Yanukovych the whole of society was radicalised. There might be small number of right-wing radicals who support neo-fascism and fascism but it has never been a problem in Ukraine. It is blown out of all proportion. It's never touched me, my friends, or my family. We have a history of fighting fascism and we in Ukraine more than anywhere in the world understand how bad fascism is. How many people were killed by it -- hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed for no reason other than their religion. We know that better than anyone; we know what fascism means.

FP: What message do you have for the world while Ukraine is in crisis?

VK: Ukraine is one of the largest countries in Europe. We have a population of 46 million and huge resources. We have huge potential. Instability in such a large country can bring instability to the whole region and that's why the whole world must help us. We have serious problems in our economy after Yanukovych's rule: We need economic help, we need political support, we need moral support, and technological know-how. Ukraine can be a success story and it can be useful to Europe and to the world but right now we need to stabilize the situation.

We are a hardworking people who want to live as a modern, European country. It's really that simple.

Etienne De Malglaive/Getty Images

Interview

'Remind People that I Won’t Be Free for Long'

Anwar Ibrahim on Malaysia’s mishandling of MH370, President Obama, and good Jews and bad Jews.

Malaysia's embattled opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim may not be meeting Barack Obama when the U.S. president visits Kuala Lumpur on April 26-27, but he has a message for him: Ibrahim's party won the 2013 election in this Muslim country of 30 million people, and Obama's meeting with the wrong guy.

"How is it conceivable that the U.S. government could ignore the massive election fraud in Malaysia?" Anwar asked. "I would like to see the United States remain consistent and coherent in their policy of supporting democracy. Sending drones to Afghanistan for democracy, and ignoring that I garnered 52 percent of the popular vote? We won!" he said in a phone interview with Foreign Policy on April 17.

Ibrahim was Malaysia's deputy prime minister and finance minister until he ran afoul of the long-serving former prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad. The political conflict led to a 1998 conviction on sodomy and corruption charges, followed by 6 years in solitary confinement. In 2008, Ibrahim put together an opposition coalition that he claims would have won the 2013 government election, had the elections been fair -- which the ruling government, helmed by current Prime Minister Najib Razak disputes. Convicted again of sodomy in March -- an almost certainly politically motivated overturning of an earlier acquittal -- Anwar may face another long spell in prison. "Remind people that I won't be free for long," he told FP. (The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

Foreign Policy: If you had been prime minister, how would you have handled the MH370 inquiry differently?

Anwar Ibrahim: Although the media here is completely controlled by the government, Malaysia is not. I would say that given this situation, the issue is how you manage a crisis. You must remain consistent with your statements. And transparent! Otherwise, nobody will trust you.

Why is the government concealing critical information about the radar? Or the passenger manifest of those who use stolen passports! Why is the cargo manifest not made public, knowing very well that is relevant? What are we hiding?

Mangosteens are not in season -- but Malaysian Airlines confirmed they had three to four tons of mangosteens on board. The Thais didn't have it now, nor did the Indonesians -- so how on Earth did they get all of these mangosteens?

All of these contradictions have caused a lot of concern -- that the government is concealing information, and even worse, misleading.

It is very difficult to understand that in this day and age you can have a huge plane and not detect it.

FP: Do you think Prime Minister Najib [Razak] knows where the plane is?

AI: I don't think so. I don't know. But what is questionable is why are they now concealing relevant information. What sort of integrity can we have when we can't release this critical information?

FP: U.S. President Barack Obama will meet with Prime Minister Razak on Saturday. Would you like Obama to mention your situation to him?

AI: The United States is more preoccupied with TPP [the Trans-Pacific Partnership] and international trade than issues of freedom and repression. It's not an issue if Obama meets me or not. But if you preach democracy, you have to be consistent.

Unlike most countries, the prime minister and foreign minister would take any steps to not let any foreign leader to see me. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said to me, "I'll meet you in Ankara, it's too much hassle to meet you in Kuala Lumpur!"

FP: And if Obama wanted to meet with you in KL?

AI: I would be surprised that the U.S. president can be dictated to by Malaysian protocols.

FP: Malaysia lacks diplomatic relations with Israel. What would it take for you to establish them?

AI: I was hammered by the government here for what I told the Wall Street Journal in a January 2012 interview: I was attacked as pro-Jew, pro-Israel.

The ruling party already hangs my picture saying all the Jews -- Robert Rubin, Madeleine Albright, Paul Wolfowitz -- are Anwar's friends! And that is quite effective. My photograph with [former World Bank President] Wolfowitz is in many villages around Malaysia.

I make no apologies about them being my friends -- they are good Jews! There are good Muslims and bad Muslims, just like good Jews and bad Jews. I choose the good Jews.

If I'm a friend of Bob Rubin, he was secretary of the treasury -- yes, he's a friend, what's the problem?

In the United States, APCO and other public relations firms portray me as anti-Semitic. I have taken a large beating through Najib's hiring of APCO as his consultant. As you know, they have been involved in Nigeria and Kazakhstan in the past, and the highest paid is Malaysia -- $20 million in one go!

I don't have a problem with the government using APCO -- but why must they use paid bloggers, journalists, to demonize me in the United States? [APCO did work for the government of Malaysia until 2010. In an emailed statement, Adam Williams, APCO's global media relations manager wrote that "we have never worked to portray Mr. Anwar as anti-Semitic. We have never taken editorial control over or paid bloggers or journalists to write stories. It is against our code of conduct as a firm."]

So I will be very careful: I continue to support the plight of the Palestinians. It is important for Israel to recognize the plight of Palestinians, and recognize their rights. And contingent on this we can explore with countries such as Turkey, Qatar and Indonesia the right way to engage with Israel.

FP: Last summer, Prime Minister Razak responded to a question about the Arab Spring in Malaysia by saying there was "no basis for people to go onto the streets." Do you believe that?

AI: He's presiding over an authoritarian regime with no free media, a compromised judiciary -- and all of this is being exposed. Naturally he would sound like Hosni Mubarak!

I would frankly concede that the government is not as blatantly dictatorial or cruel as Mubarak's. We have better infrastructure and investment is coming. But its authoritarian manner, endemic corruption -- that's why people are talking about going to a major rally on May 1.

FP: Why were you accused of sodomy -- why that particular crime?

AI: I am clean, so they had to resort to something that conservative Muslims would find distasteful. It has been used by former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein against his opponents. Even Hitler in one case, if I'm not mistaken. It's convenient.

They can haul up young guys and get them to say it -- with not a shred of evidence! No witnesses!

I should add: No one should be above the law. But that sodomy law is obsolete because it is rarely used except against me or other opposition leaders. Second, you have to produce evidence! It's shocking.

FP: Back to political matters, how would your policies towards China differ from Prime Minister Najib's?

AI: The position of the government is purely trade and business, and soft on China.

While we are very [much in favor of] strong relations, our position on issues on human rights is certainly more pronounced.

I have personally taken a position on Uighurs in China -- we have appealed to the international community to be cognizant that the Uighurs have a right to be heard. We have evidence of abuses and oppression towards them. Our position has always been to encourage China to give them their rights.

FP: If you were Malaysia's prime minister and were meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, would you bring up the case of the imprisoned Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo?

AI: I would certainly -- in a polite, nuanced way. We are a small country, and we are not in a position to provoke. But it would be unacceptable for me, after being imprisoned for more than 7 years of my adult life, and completely insensitive to ignore the plight of prisoners of conscience.

MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP/Getty Images