KIEV, Ukraine — Ukrainian ex-world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko announced Saturday he will not run for president and will instead throw his support behind billionaire businessman Petro Poroshenko.
Klitschko told a congress of his UDAR party Saturday that he plans to run for mayor of the capital city, Kiev.
His endorsement will prove a valuable boost for Poroshenko, who played a prominent role in the months-long protest movement that led to the toppling of President Viktor Yanukovych in February.
“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.”
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.
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.
Putin’s comments have prompted concerns in Kiev and Washington about a possible Russian invasion in eastern Ukraine.
Poroshenko, the owner of a major confectionery company and a former foreign minister, already leads in the polls for the presidential election and is seen as likely to beat ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who declared this week that she will “be the candidate of Ukrainian unity.”
The Kiev mayoral election is also scheduled for May 25.
Poroshenko announced his candidacy to supporters Friday evening in his childhood hometown of Vinnytsia while holding up a religious icon of the Virgin Mary and child.
Speaking at the same UDAR congress, Poroshenko said Ukraine needed to unify in the face of aggression, a reference to Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula earlier this month.
“The principle of â€˜brother for brother’ should be built on and broadened — we should not just have â€˜brother for brother’ but also â€˜friend for friend,”‘ said Poroshenko, whose worth is estimated by Forbes magazine at $1.3 billion.
Several political party conferences took place Saturday across Kiev ahead of the Sunday deadline for presidential candidates to submit their bids.
A survey conducted in mid-March by the SOCIS polling organization found Poroshenko leading with a wide margin at 36 percent support among likely voters. Klitschko was seen trailing in second place with 13 percent and Tymoshenko, who narrowly lost to Yanukovych in 2010, had about 12 percent.