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The Fighting in Ukraine Has Cooled, But Tempers Have Not

An uneasy ceasefire between protesters and police has temporarily put a halt to fighting that killed as many as five protesters this week.

by Henry Langston
Jan 24 2014, 8:30pm

Photos by Henry Langston and Phil Caller

On Thursday, after five days of violence, clashes in central Kiev finally came to a standstill. Activists and riot police had been fighting since Sunday on Hrushevskoho Street after a protest against the government's new anti-protest law turned into an all-out brawl.

Demonstrators hurled Molotov cocktails and fireworks at cops, who responded with volleys of tear gas and rubber bullets, until one of the opposition leaders — former professional boxer Vitali Klitschko — brokered a ceasefire that held throughout the day and into Friday morning.

Hundreds of protesters and police have been injured and up to five protesters have been killed, two of those as a result of bullet wounds.

On Thursday, the (NSFW) footage above was uploaded to YouTube, but it's unclear when it was recorded. The video shows Ukrainian police using humiliation tactics against the protesters, stripping a man in the freezing cold and making him pose for the cameras, before kicking him in the leg.

In an effort to defend themselves from further violence, protesters have gone the DIY self-preservation route. Some are walking around in homemade armor, strapping planks of wood and sheets of plastic to their limbs to protect them from police batons. Others have crafted shields out of car doors, snowboards, and pieces of steel. New barricades have been erected to stop the police from getting through. A few people are wearing chain mail.

It's a safe bet that police won't unleash any battle-axes on Independence Square, but it's no surprise that people are gearing up for it anyway. In another nod to Medieval weaponry, protesters have also constructed several catapults at the front-line barricades, preparing hundreds of Molotov cocktails to rain liquid fire onto the police.

The barricades themselves are made out of tires, rocks, bags of snow, bags of rocks, planks of wood, and even burnt-out buses that had been used to ferry riot cops into the heart of the action. In other words, anything people can get their hands on.

While others had crafted weapons out of planks of wood or managed to get their hands on police batons, the fellow pictured above was wandering around with a dismembered mannequin leg. I didn't see him use it, but I can't imagine there's a much more humiliating situation as a riot cop than having a fiberglass toe find its way under your helmet.

On Thursday, opposition leaders Vitali Klitschko from UDAR, Oleh Tyahnybok of the far-right Svoboda party, and Arseniy Yatsenyuk of the Fatherland Party met with President Viktor Yanukovych to find a way to halt the violence and bring an end to the stand-off.

After four hours of negotiation, Klitschko and Tyahnybok came down to the barricades to tell the thousands gathered that they weren't able to come to an agreement, and called for the ceasefire to continue. Boos and shouts of "shame" and "revolution" quickly followed.

The "Euromaidan" movement is united in its hatred for Yanukovych and his government, but is not united in its love of the opposition parties. People want change now, and so far all they’re getting is fruitless negotiations and an uneasy stand off — which may well explain why those taking part in the violence aren’t being viewed as pariahs. In fact, there seems to be a fairly high level of support for protestors plying their trade with fireworks and Molotovs.

This protest is no longer just about entering Europe; years of corruption and poor economic growth have come to a head, and people are angry.

Like last year's Brazilian uprising, which began because people were angry about the price of bus tickets, or Turkey’s wave of unrest, which began with an attempt to save a park. the Ukraine's pro-EU protests have embraced a more generalized disaffection. There's been a decrease in the number of people waving the EU flag, and everyone you speak to is now far more interested in toppling the government than they are in any kind of trade agreement with Europe.

The unrest in Ukraine is spreading beyond Kiev. Elsewhere, protesters forced the resignation of the regional governor in the western city of Lviv, and in Rivne — a city in the northwest of the country — crowds fought with police and invaded the regional administration building.

It's difficult to know what will happen next. The situation around the barricades is peaceful at press time, but thousands remain here, angry at the deaths of protesters and eager to seek retribution for those who have been beaten, tortured, and humiliated by police.