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At The Barricades In Kiev, A City Seethes


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

In Ukraine, antigovernment protests turned deadly this week. Yesterday, two men were shot in the capital of Kiev during battles with police. The protests have spread to other cities, notably in the western part of the country.

SIEGEL: Ukraine's government, led by President Viktor Yanukovych, backed out of a trade deal with the European Union late last year in favor of a policy of closer relations with Russia. And after demonstrations against that move, Yanukovych imposed a package of laws that restricted the right to demonstrate. That led to the current wave of protests.

Reporter David Stern is in Kiev. And, David, can you tell us where you are and what the state of things on the streets of the Ukrainian capital is today?

DAVID STERN, BYLINE: Well, I'm standing right now at the barricades at the very front of the protest. This is where these violent clashes have been taking place over the last days where the two men were shot that you mentioned. There's a kind of a ceasefire right now while the president meets with the opposition leaders.

But where I am right now, I wouldn't call it peaceful. People are preparing. They have iron bars and sticks in their hand. Everybody are wearing helmets. There's piles of tires in front of me which they're ready to ignite, and lots and lots of bricks that they're piling up from the street. They've also been using Molotov cocktails.

SIEGEL: Tell me, I mean, David, are these actions of the protesters, are they directed by the political leaders who've been meeting with President Yanukovych or are the protests pretty much spontaneous at this stage?

STERN: Well, it's difficult to tell, really, who is directing this. There are ultra nationalists and right extremists, and they've been leading these packs. But at the same time, the bulk of the protest is they have been supporting these clashes because these demonstrations have been going on for two months now and there's a very strong sense of frustration among the protesters.

SIEGEL: Yesterday, Vitali Klitschko - one of the opposition leaders, the famous former boxing champion warned - he said, if the president won't listen to us, we will go into attack or we will go on the offensive. What does he mean by that? What do people hear him saying?

STERN: It's not entirely clear what he means by that. One of the protest leaders said that he was going to be at the front of the line and if he got a bullet to the forehead, then so be it, he said. But they hope that they have the numbers on their side and that they will be able to perhaps overcome, either by sheer numbers or by peaceful demonstration, the riot police that have blocked their way up to the parliament building.

SIEGEL: And at this stage, what do you hear from the protesters? What is it that they're demanding? That Yanukovych resign, that he stay in office but withdraw these restrictions on demonstrations, that he reverse his policy with regard to Europe - what is it that they're seeking now?

STERN: Well, all of the above. They want him out. They want these laws that you've talked about to be revoked. They want to turn towards Europe and they want a new country. But it also should be said that as wide is the support of this movement is, there's an entirely different part of Ukraine and a very large part of Ukraine that don't support these demonstrations in the east and in the south. Even if they are not supporting President Yanukovych, they're also not supporting the opposition. They're very suspicious of the opposition.

SIEGEL: And so far, this has engaged protesters and riot police. Has the army shown itself at all in this? And has anybody mentioned the army playing a role?

STERN: Oh, yes. People are mentioning the army. There's a fear that President Yanukovych could bring out any number of forces onto the streets, that he could introduce a crackdown in Kiev or in the country as a whole. But no, the army has not been mobilized. And President Yanukovych has actually said that he will not introduce martial law.

But there's a fear that this violence could spread, especially if the talks between the opposition and the president yield nothing, that if the opposition goes on the offensive, as they say, that it could turn into a much wider conflict. And as Ukraine here is a split society, there's always the danger that there be a civil war, although we're quite far from that at the moment. But people are worried about that prospect.

SIEGEL: David Stern, thank you very much.

STERN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's reporter David Stern, speaking to us from Kiev, the capital city of Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.