Enter Vitaly Klitschko, a towering world boxing champion with a doctorate in sports science, who is looking increasingly like the opposition’s most powerful contender.
Protesters and commentators see Mr Klitschko as a leader-in-waiting, as the opposition digs in to unseat president Viktor Yanukovich after he ditched a trade pact with the European Union to revive ties with Moscow.
“This is not a revolution, it is a peaceful protest that demands justice,” Mr Klitschko said yesterday in the Ukrainian parliament shortly after his and other opposition parties blockaded the chamber as part of a nationwide strike. “The people are not defending political interests; they are defending the idea of living in a civilised country.”
“I’d stand behind Klitschko,” said Grigory Parkhomenko, a 54-year-old retired factory worker at Kiev’s opposition-occupied city hall yesterday.
“He’s earned his fortune with his hands, so he doesn’t need to steal from the people.”
Mr Klitschko, the 6’ 7” tall World Boxing Council heavyweight champion known as “Dr Ironfist” because of his erudition, is sharing the stage with a bespectacled lawyer who frets about his poor public image and a surgeon who leads a combustible far-right nationalist group in an unlikely “troika” mounting a street challenge to Mr Yanukovich’s leadership.
The outpouring of anger at Mr Yanukovich’s rejection last month of a landmark accord to deepen ties with the EU echoes public anger at his fraudulent election victory in 2004, when mass protests overturned the result and, with it, Ukraine’s post-Soviet order.
The leader then was Yulia Tymoshenko, whose electric personality and fiery speeches kept tens of thousands out in the streets through the bitterly cold winter of 2004-5.
With Tymoshenko in jail, the disparate opposition alliance faces a challenge in maintaining momentum, and unity.
For successive weekends, calls by Mr Klitschko, former economy minister Arseny Yatsenyuk and Oleh Tyahnybok – the leader of the nationalist Svoboda (Freedom) party – have brought out tens of thousands on to the streets.
Tymoshenko’s supporters would naturally gravitate to her successor as party leader, Mr Yatsenyuk, but may find common cause and ideology with Mr Klitschko, too. They are unlikely to see much hope in the hardline nationalists.
Mr Klitschko benefits from a perception he is uncorrupted, not a product of the discredited Ukrainian political system but a national hero who lived abroad and made a fortune winning titles with his fists.
In sport, he and younger brother Vladimir have towered over boxing for years. Despite being 42, he still holds one of the four world heavyweight crowns, while Vladimir holds the other three. Despite an awkward public style, Mr Klitschko exudes a quiet strength that plays well in Ukraine. He is emerging increasingly as the field commander of the protests and could be a common candidate to take on Mr Yanukovich.
However, that might not sit well though with Mr Yatsenyuk, 39, who took over leading Tymoshenko’s party in parliament and has led pressure for her release for months.
The Yanukovich camp appear to have sensed that Mr Klitschko is the main threat and has moved to try to neutralise him, challenging his right to run for the presidency because of the years he has spent living in Germany.
“Any serious split in their [Klitschko/Yatsenyuk] ranks will be a defeat for what is going on in the streets,” said Volodymyr Fesenko, a political analyst. “The issue of their unity is an issue of survival for the opposition.”