At the end of last week, a mass of protesters descended on Maidan Square, Kiev. There to urge President Viktor Yanukovych to bring them closer to the EU, demonstrators were riding through police lines on bulldozers and it looked like it might all turn a bit Turkey on us. Images of protesters punching riot police in the face began rolling in, and everybody wondered if "Ukrainian Winter" was too evocative of freezing to death to coin as a name for a dynamic political movement.
Since then, things seem to have died down somewhat. So we called VICE UK News Editor Henry Langston, who's been out in Kiev all week, for an update on the situation.
VICE: Hey, man. How are you?
Henry: Still cold.
Get yourself a coat. Is it just me or have things calmed down a bit over there?
Yeah, it's quiet here. It appears that the three opposition parties—Svoboda, the right-wing nationalist party; UDAR, the centrist party; and the Fatherland Party, the party of the jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko—have kind of co-opted this protest movement.
It seems like they’re using the Maidan movement to create leverage to increase their popularity in the run up to an election. Politics here is driven by personalities, and these strong characters are calling for peace. Their supporters want to stick to the party line, so the leaders have managed to calm the protests down.
Vitali Klitschko, the leader of UDAR, on the big screen in Maidan
So these parties are all singing from the same hymn sheet now?
UDAR and the Fatherland are sort of centrist and Svoboda are nationalists, but their flags are next to each other. Their activists are hanging out together. Their politicians are speaking on the same stages. It’s a real coming together. It’s a marriage of convenience, and not wanting to be part of Putin’s Eurasian bloc is what’s bringing them together.
So what do you think will happen now?
It’s very likely that President Yanukovych will not be re-elected. So there are talks of these three parties coming together to pick one leader who will smash Yanukovych at the election. That’s definitely looking likely to be Klitschko, the leader of UDAR. On Wednesday evening there was a rally in the square. Klitschko was on stage with his brother and the crowd was just wild. Everyone’s going around saying, "Slavo Ukraina!" which means, "Glory to Ukraine!" They were lapping it up. We’ve seen a bunch of speeches in that square, and his was by far the best received. He’s a popular man, anyway —he’s the reigning world heavyweight boxing champion. He’s gone around the world beating people up, winning boxing matches in the name of Ukraine. He’s a hero to them.
Are people going to wait it out for an election? I thought you said they wanted change now?
The first round of the next presidential election has been set for the beginning of 2015. But nobody’s marching on parliament any more. Everyone’s putting on rock bands and focusing on this stage. There’ll be a speech, a rock band and a singer, and then there’ll be more speeches. It’s the heart of what’s going on here. It’s kind of strangled the radicalism that you saw in the first few days.
What’s it like in the occupied zone—in Maidan Square and the occupied government buildings?
What we’re seeing is incredible. All these people from different political backgrounds and beliefs handing out free food, free clothes, delivering wood and keeping each other warm and in good spirits. It really is quite something to see. It’s impressive. Almost heartwarming, in a way.
And is that likely to continue?
Yesterday, a government representative turned up at the city hall to much fanfare from the media and gave them an ultimatum to leave. They told them they had five days, but didn't say what would happen if they didn't leave. The obvious option would be to send in the cops. But, as we’ve seen, cops coming in and smashing in skulls will just draw more people out on the streets again, which is exactly what the government doesn’t want or need. At the moment they can kind of ignore what’s going on in Maidan, but they'd get people marching on parliament again and more pressure from the EU—it would be a hassle for them. Because Svoboda runs the place, if they said, "It's time to leave the building," it’s possible that they would get up and leave.
Photos by Henry Langston
Follow Henry on Twitter for updates from Kiev: @Henry_Langston