Ukraine's Big Three

Meet the Opposition Leaders at the Helm of Euromaidan

A pro-EU rally at Independence Square in Kiev, December 17, 2013. (Marko Djurica / Courtesy Reuters)

Over the last few days, Ukraine has seen the worst clashes since antigovernment protests began in November after Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign an association agreement with the European Union. In the last two months, Yanukovych and his supporters have declined to make any concessions to the opposition, responding instead with riot police and, last week, a set of laws intended to severely curtail the protests. Talks between Yanukovych and the opposition, when they have taken place, have come to nothing. Now, with violence rising in Kiev’s Independence Square, known as the Maidan, Ukraine’s opposition leaders must decide what to do next.

Ukraine’s Euromaidan, as the demonstration is known, has three leaders but no hero. That is somewhat surprising for a country with such a long tradition of protest, including, most recently, the Orange Revolution. In 2004, Viktor Yushchenko, who had previously been prime minister and whose face was permanently scarred from a dioxin poisoning, and Yulia Tymoshenko, who had previously been deputy prime minister, came to embody the hopes of millions of Ukrainians and successfully challenged the results of a massively fraudulent election. This time around, three opposition leaders have attempted to guide the protests: Vitali Klitschko, Oleh Tyahnybok, and Arseniy Yatsenyuk, an unlikely trio of politicians who banded together after parliamentary elections in October 2012 to create what they called a united opposition.

Vitali Klitschko, January 2014. (Gleb Garanich / Courtesy Reuters)

Klitschko is likely the most familiar of the three to readers in the West. This 42-year-old world-boxing champion has been widely profiled in the international press; I interviewed him in Kiev shortly before the protests began. In 2012, his party, UDAR (the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform, literally “punch”), made it into parliament with 14 percent of the vote on an anticorruption platform. Klitschko spent years in Germany for his boxing career and speaks English and excellent German. He wants Ukrainians to enjoy European living standards and has emerged as a leading proponent of closer relations with the European Union, which he believes will make Ukraine a wealthier and better-run place. He has already been tipped as a future president for Ukraine, although many Ukrainians worry about his lack of experience and weak oratory skills. 

Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to three free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to ForeignAffairs.com
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis