Boyarka, Ukraine | AFP | Zhan Beleniuk, an Olympic wrestler with Rwandan roots, is seeking to enter Ukraine’s parliament as the first mixed-race MP in a bid to overcome racist attitudes and support the country’s young new leader.
The Greco-Roman style wrestler, who won silver for Ukraine at the Rio Olympics, is standing for the party of the new Ukrainian president, comedian and actor Volodymyr Zelensky, in Sunday’s polls.
The 28-year-old is the son of a Ukrainian dressmaker and a Rwandan pilot killed in that country’s civil war in the 1990s. He grew up in a one-room flat in the capital Kiev.
“Volodymyr Zelensky invited me to join his party, we knew each other before,” Beleniuk told AFP in an interview as he campaigned in the small town of Boyarka just outside Kiev.
“It seems like he saw qualities in me that will help promote the development of Ukrainian sport,” said the athlete after holding a training session for children.
Describing himself as “100 percent Ukrainian”, Beleniuk said his election would prove “we’re really a country that’s modern and that treats all races, all ethnic groups the same.”
Prejudice is nevertheless an issue in Ukraine where last year, radical hate groups carried out two dozen attacks on Roma and other minorities, according to Human Rights Watch.
“I do get some abuse due to the fact that I don’t look like other Ukrainians,” Beleniuk admitted
So far his campaign has encountered little overt racism.
One Ukrainian reporter called him “a negro” on social media but deleted his post after criticism from fellow journalists.
– ‘It’s a challenge’ –
Beleniuk is one of the best-known faces standing for Zelensky’s Servant of the People party among mainly young and politically inexperienced candidates. But he says he believes these “new energetic people” will be able to fight corruption in crisis-hit Ukraine.
Zelensky is hoping his party will dominate parliamentary polls that he called early after winning the presidency with a landslide victory in April.
The fact that Beleniuk is running for a seat in parliament shows that Ukrainians are open-minded people, said Kiev-based analyst Volodymyr Fesenko.
“We have no negative racist stereotypes,” he said.
By entering politics, Beleniuk is following in the footsteps of another heavyweight — former professional boxer Vitali Klitschko, who is Kiev’s mayor.
Speaking with lengthy pauses, Beleniuk admitted that politics “won’t be as comfortable for me as training but you see, for me it’s a challenge.”
“I got a chance … to influence the situation and it would be cowardly for me to say I’m not ready to do this,” he said.
Beleniuk was 2015 world champion and silver medallist in the 85-kilogramme category at the 2016 Olympics in Greco-Roman wrestling, an ancient style that only allows holds on the upper body.
Established in 2017, the Servant of the People party currently has no seats in the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s single-chamber parliament.
But it is leading in opinion polls with more than 40 percent support which means that Beleniuk could very likely be elected.
Analysts chalk up the newly created party’s popularity to Zelensky’s high approval ratings after he beat the incumbent president Petro Poroshenko with 73 percent of the vote.
– Olympic hopes –
Despite his apparent diffidence, Beleniuk has got involved in sports-related politics before. In 2016, he accused Ukraine’s sports authorities of not caring about their athletes after they failed to pay out promised funds immediately.
He said both Russia and Azerbaijan had offered him citizenship and financial incentives to relinquish his Ukrainian passport.
But he vows to continue his professional career under the Ukrainian flag and hopes to compete in the Olympics in Tokyo in 2020.
At the same time he intends to abide by Zelensky’s declaration that Servant of the People lawmakers must attend all parliamentary sessions and vote on all bills — a response to a culture of frequent absences and proxy voting.
“This year I will attend the Verkhovna Rada. Only during active training (for the Olympics), most likely, I will go on unpaid leave,” Beleniuk said.