Ukrainian ex-world boxing champ Klitschko backs billionaire ally Poroshenko for president

The Associated Press

People reacts during former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, speech at the Batkivshchina (Fatherland) party congress in Kiev, Ukraine, Saturday, March 29, 2014. Tymoshenko, declared this week that she will "be the candidate of Ukrainian unity." The May 25 election is taking place against the backdrop of the annexation of Crimea, Ukraine's dire economic straits and rumblings of discontent in the country's mainly Russian-speaking eastern provinces. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

Associated Press + More

By PETER LEONARD, Associated Press

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Ex-world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, considered a strong contender to become Ukraine's next leader, upended the country's presidential race Saturday by announcing he will throw his support instead behind a billionaire candy maker.

Klitschko told his UDAR party that he plans to run for mayor of Ukraine's capital city, Kiev, paving the way for current presidential favorite, businessman Petro Poroshenko, in the May 25 vote.

The move is likely to ensure that both men cement powerful positions in Ukraine's new government and block the chances of a full return to power from the country's former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko.

The May 25 presidential election and Kiev mayoral vote are taking place against the backdrop of Russia's recent annexation of Crimea, Ukraine's dire economic straits and rumblings of discontent in the country's mainly Russian-speaking eastern provinces.

Both Klitschko, 42, and Poroshenko, 48, played prominent roles in the months-long protest movement that led to the toppling of President Viktor Yanukovych in February. The demonstrations were sparked by Yanukovych's decision to back away from closer ties with the European Union and turn toward Russia but grew to encompass widespread discontent with corruption and the lack of democratic freedoms.

"The only way to win is by nominating a single candidate from the democratic ranks," Klitschko said. "This should be a candidate with the greatest support from the people."

Poroshenko, who also owns the popular Channel 5 television station and has served as foreign minister, already leads in the polls for the presidential election and is seen as likely to beat Tymoshenko, who declared this week that she will "be the candidate of Ukrainian unity."

One analyst said Saturday's announcement was a strategic move by Klitschko.

"The alliance of Poroshenko and Klitschko will fundamentally change the configuration of the political field and will cancel out the chances of other candidates," said political analyst Vadim Karasyov. "It is clear that Yulia is not fighting for the post of president, but for a future faction in parliament."

As Ukraine moves quickly to build up its governance, it still casts an uneasy eye toward Russia, fearing a possible troop invasion into eastern Ukraine.

President Barack Obama urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to pull his troops back from the border with Ukraine during an hour-long phone call Friday. The Russian leader, who initiated the call, asserted that Ukraine's government is allowing extremists to intimidate civilians with impunity — something Ukraine insists has not happened.

In a televised interview aired Saturday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov expressed concerns over the threat posed by radical nationalists to ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine, but denied any armed action was imminent.

"We have absolutely no intention or interests in crossing the borders of Ukraine," he said.

Poroshenko announced his candidacy to supporters Friday evening in his childhood hometown of Vinnytsia, holding up a religious icon of the Virgin Mary and child.

Speaking Saturday at the same UDAR congress as Klitschko, Poroshenko said Ukraine needed to unify in the face of aggression, a reference to Russia's annexation of Crimea.

"Our goal is to live in a new way," he said Saturday. "To shape Ukraine in a way that there will be rich, free and honest citizens that will be happy to be Ukrainians and to live in a country respected by the whole world."

Several political party conferences took place Saturday across Kiev ahead of the Sunday deadline for presidential candidates to submit their bids.