KIEV (Reuters) - Vitaly Klitschko, a former world heavyweight boxing champion, has claimed victory in an election to become mayor of Kiev, clinching a major role in Ukraine’s emerging new political order after Sunday’s presidential election.
Klitschko is a close ally of Ukraine’s new president, Petro Poroshenko, whom he backed for the top job after quitting the contest himself. Their alliance has been on display in the past 24 hours when Klitschko, who is some two meters (6 feet eight) tall, stood beside Poroshenko at two news conferences.
As mayor, Klitschko takes responsibility for the ‘Maidan’, central Kiev’s Independence Square, nerve-center of the uprising which ousted president Viktor Yanukovich in February after his attempt to move Ukraine closer to Russia and away from Europe.
Backed by Poroshenko, Klitschko said on Monday it was finally time after fair and free presidential and mayoral elections, for hundreds of protesters who have kept up their vigil since Yanukovich fled to Russia to leave the Maidan.
“The main task of the Maidan has been achieved, we were saved from dictatorship. The barricades have fulfilled their function and must now be removed,” Klitschko, 42, told a joint news conference with Ukraine’s new president.
The square is still covered with tents and barricades, many festooned with posters, flags, banners and photographs of the 100-plus people killed by Yanukovich’s forces last winter - a powerful symbol of “people power” in the ex-Soviet republic.
“We have to free Khreshchatyk (Kiev’s main thoroughfare) for traffic and then return to normal peaceful life and this will be a fine example for other regions,” said Klitschko.
He was referring to two regions of eastern Ukraine where pro-Russian separatists declared autonomous “people’s republics” and prevented the presidential election taking place. On Monday, they were battling with Ukrainian forces in the city of Donetsk.
Poroshenko, reiterating an election campaign theme, said he wanted to remove all armed groups from the streets of Ukrainian cities and towns, in Donetsk, in Kiev and elsewhere.
Klitschko, leader of the Udar party in parliament, was one of the three main leaders of the Maidan protesters, though at times the trio was reduced to acting as messengers between the Yanukovich government and the increasingly radical protesters.
Poroshenko, known as the “chocolate king” because of his confectionary business, also backed the Maidan protests but stayed more in the background.
Klitschko’s decision in March to stand aside and back Poroshenko’s candidacy greatly smoothed the businessman’s bid at a time of growing crisis in Ukraine, helping him to win the presidency in Sunday’s first round. Had he failed to win more than 50 percent, Poroshenko would have faced a runoff vote on June 15.
Klitschko, who is famed for his powerful punches and earned the nickname ‘Doctor Ironfist’ on account of his doctorate in sports science, fielded questions on Monday in Ukrainian, Russian and English, as did Poroshenko.
They both pledged to fight in their new roles for the ideals of the Maidan protesters - transparency and an end to graft in public life and closer economic and political ties with the European Union.
Maidan diehards, who have camped out in all weather and braved snipers’ bullets, have mixed views of Poroshenko, noting that as a former minister in Yanukovich’s government, he hardly counts as a new face in Ukrainian politics.
“I am sure that in six months or so, people will again appear on the Maidan with placards shouting ‘Ukraine without Poroshenko’,” one Maidan veteran who gave his name only as Nikolai told Reuters before Sunday’s election.
Editing by Susan Fenton