Violence Erupts Over Ukraine President's Pro-Russia Move

Demonstrations, often violent, are happening across Ukraine after its president refused to sign a trade agreement with the European Union. His decision came under heavy pressure from Russia, which in the past has cut off critical gas supplies to Ukraine to show its dissatisfaction. For more, Renee Montagne talks to journalist David Stern in the Ukrainian capital Kiev.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. In Ukraine over the weekend, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of several cities in what were often violent protests. At stake is whether that country of 45 million people will lean toward the West or toward its giant neighbor, Russia. The pro-Western demonstrations began a week ago, when Ukraine's president backed out of a trade deal with the European Union - much to the E.U.'s dismay.

The president made that decision under heavy pressure from Russia, which in the past has cut off gas supplies to Ukraine to show its dissatisfaction. We're joined now by journalist David Stern, who's in the Main Square of the capital, Kiev. Good morning.

DAVID STERN, BYLINE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: So what is the situation like there this morning? I gather that City Hall has been taken over by protesters.

STERN: Yes. A couple of buildings have been taken over by protestors. The building that houses the city administration and the mayor and also the House of Trade unions which is immediately beyond Independence Square where I'm standing right now and which the site of all these demonstrations, the nerve center of this movement, if you will.

One thing that is striking at the moment is the lack of police presence. As I walked around the center of Kiev, I hardly saw any police officers at all. They've basically left the center - the very center - of the city to the protestors.

MONTAGNE: All right. And what are the protesters' demands?

STERN: Well, the protestors have a couple of main demands. The thrust is that they want closer integration with the European Union. But the initial spark of these demonstrations was the fact that President Viktor Yanukovych pulled out at the last minute to signing a deal with the European Union, a very wide-ranging deal.

But the demands have grown. They are now demanding the resignation of the government and actually the ouster of President Yanukovych. They want early parliamentary and early presidential elections.

MONTAGNE: And how does opposition to Russia figure into these protests?

STERN: Well, along with the desire to move closer to Europe, there's the desire to move away or at least not move any closer to Russia. When President Yanukovych announced that he was suspending the deal, as you said, he said one of the reasons was they had to focus on better relations with Russia. And in fact, Russia had said that if Ukraine signed this deal they would very likely introduce trade sanctions that would make life miserable in Ukraine and that would add a major economic impact.

MONTAGNE: Are there signs the protests are having an impact?

STERN: Yes, there are signs, although we're only seeing the surface. We don't know what's going on behind the doors of the government. President Yanukovych still has not reacted to the latest protest, the one on Sunday and the ones that are going on today, and the clashes that took place outside of the presidential administration on Sunday. There were pitched battles there between protestors and riot police. He has been silent. And we're all waiting to see what he or the rest of the governors will do.

There are rumors that they will introduce martial law but the prime minister has said that they won't. But at the moment, there hasn't been really any official reaction.

MONTAGNE: Well, just one last thing. Some Americans might know Ukraine because of the popular former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko. She's close to the West. She's been in prison on what many view as a case designed to keep her out of politics. Is she a factor in these demonstrations?

STERN: She's not a factor in the demonstrations but she is definitely a factor in the general situation here. Her jailing, as you said, is viewed by Western officials as political. They have demanded her release. In fact, EU officials made that a pre-condition for their signing the agreement with Ukraine and President Yanukovych dragged his feet on that. In fact, it doesn't look like he's going to release her any time soon.

The protestors, of course, are aware of her situation. Some would like her to be released, but mostly what they are concerned about is the integration with Europe.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

STERN: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: That was journalist David Stern who spoke to us from Kiev, the capital of Ukraine.

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