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A Chat with Our UK News Editor in Kiev

The mood in the streets of Kiev is one of uncertainty. Is revolution coming, or will the notorious Soviet winter, possibly with some help from government muscle, quash the hopes of EU-loving protesters?
December 4, 2013, 5:00pm

Protesters in Kiev (photo: Konstantin Chernichkin)

As temperatures plummet in Ukraine, the political temperature is getting decidedly hot. Since Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign a deal bringing his country closer to the EU, the streets of Kiev have been awash with angry, bulldozer-riding protesters who want the country to head in a more Western direction. The backdrop is a geo-political tussle between the EU and Putin’s Russia—each wanting the Ukraine to come under its sphere of influence rather than the other's. Yanukovych survived a vote of no confidence in Parliament yesterday, which didn’t really seem like it would calm things down very much. VICE UK's News Editor, Henry Langston, is on the ground in Kiev, so we called him to see if he could tell us what’s going on.

VICE: Hey, pal. How are you?
Henry: Cold.

I bet. What’s the atmosphere like in Kiev?
As soon as we arrived we could tell that there was the possibility of revolution in the air—hundreds of thousands of people on the streets. They set up around the Maidan Square and the surrounding areas so the cops can’t actually get into the direct center of the city. No vehicles can get in, which means that our taxi couldn’t get in. We had to drag our bags through half the city to the center of Kiev. As you go down Institutskaya Street—which is one of the main streets—there are a number of government buildings that have been occupied. The mint, where they print the money, has been closed off and occupied by the workers. So has the city hall and access to other government buildings.

How are they managing to keep the cops at bay?
People are manning these barricades 24/7. They’ve put loads of water on the ground so it’s really icy, so if cops try and run at the barricade they’ll fall over. If they tried to ram the barricades with vehicles, they’d crash.

Mykola Azarov, Prime Minister of the Ukraine, reacts to the vote (photo: Konstantin Chernichkin)

What was the reaction to Yanukovych surviving the vote of no confidence?
As soon as we found out about it we went and followed the protesters as they marched from Maidan Square to the parliament building, where they collected more protesters. We’re talking thousands and thousands of people. Then there was an agreement that they would head toward the residency of the president to blockade it from pretty much every entrance. But the cops had already secured the area and made sure no one could get in or out, so people headed elsewhere. There was lots of talk of revolution and lots of talk of strikes.

So what happens now?
It feels a bit like limbo now. They can’t force an election and the legal options to force out the government have run out, so how do they bring down the government? Through a violent revolution, or other means? Mass demos, camping out until the government is under so much pressure they have to resign? The problem is that it’s getting colder day-by-day—we’ve been here for two days and they’re saying that it’s the coldest day so far. What people are worried about is if it gets so cold and the first snow comes, it will force people off the streets. I imagine that the government is banking on that. If enough people stay out in the streets on strike, then the government could be in trouble.

Vitali Klitschko makes a speech to Parliament (photo: Konstantin Chernichkin)

So all the processes to change things that don’t involve sitting in the cold with a placard or striking are exhausted?
There are people saying that there is a legal way of calling a referendum to force an election. But lawyers are trying to figure out whether or not they could do that—it’s not something they can just suddenly do. There won’t be an election tomorrow, but if there was, a poll put Vitali Klitschko—the boxer who’s part of the opposition Udar party—ahead of Yanukovych, the president.

(Photo by Henry Langston)

What kind of people are protesting?
You’ve got a large mix of politics here from what we can gather. A lot of liberal middle class, and working and lower-class people as well. What we understand as left and right is a bit skewed here. It’s a patriotic country, everyone is flying Ukrainian flags and singing the national anthem together. You’ve got the Svoboda—which is the nationalist party—here with punks and anarchists and all these pensioners. It’s mostly people from the Ukrainian-speaking center and west of the country, rather than the Russian-speaking east, on the streets. But we’ve met pro-Russian people from the west, too.

What’s it like in the occupied zone?
I think they occupied the city hall on Sunday. It’s about five minutes from the square and it’s a huge Soviet-style building. There’s a massive line of people waiting to go inside. The graffiti on the walls outside of it reads: "Revolution HQ" in Ukrainian. Inside it’s completely occupied, people are handing out food, free drinks, medical aid for people who might have been injured or camping out and gotten ill. There are places for people to sleep; if it’s too cold to sleep in their tents people can come inside. Inside they have barricades because they’re prepared for some sort of attack on the building. Within the barricades there are soup kitchens. It’s like a more useful, non-lame Occupy.

Police block the way to Parliament (photo: Konstantin Chernichkin)

What’s the noise from Russia?
This is embarrassing as much for Putin as it is for Yanukovych. Thousands of Ukrainians are coming out and saying “no” to Russia, Those on the streets want to move away from Russian influence, and more toward Europe. It looks bad for Putin—he’s saying it’s a pogrom, but who’s it a pogrom against? It’s very peaceful. The violence that we saw on Sunday with the bulldozer and the guys attacking the lines of cops seemed like a small minority. We haven't seen anything like that since. People here are saying there were agent provocateurs at work from the government, there are incriminating videos of some guys who were attacking the cops being seen later on behind police lines chatting to the cops, but it’s far too early to say just yet.

It seems a bit weird that people are protesting to join the EU. People here [in England] seem either to hate it or not feel too strongly either way about it.
A lot of people here are upset about living conditions—it’s not a very cheap place to live. People aren’t happy with the way things are now and they see becoming part of a wider Europe as something that is achievable and would improve their lives.

Anything else we need to know?
There’s an air of not being sure what’s going to happen next. Everyone sort of shrugs their shoulders when you ask them questions. There is a fear that the government will grow tired of things and come and evict the Square and clash with the protesters. There’s so much international pressure on the government here after what happened on Saturday and Sunday, so it seems unlikely that they’d come in heavy-handed. The government might be happy to just wait it out and hope that people leave. Who knows, the protesters might force themselves into more government buildings, smash through the police lines, like the revolution in 2004. People are chanting “revolution,” they definitely want a change of government and they don’t want to wait for the next election in 2015. It’s unpredictable, for sure.

Thanks, Henry.

Follow Henry on Twitter for on the ground updates: @HenryLangston