Brutality Against Protesters Deepens Divisions In Ukraine

Thousands of protesters in Ukraine continue to occupy Kiev's Maidan square and to prevent the government from functioning after President Victor Yanukovich refused to allow the country to strengthen trade ties with the European Union. Ukraine is under intense Russian pressure to continue aligning itself with a customs union comprising countries of the former Soviet Union.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And let's turn now to a country that is trying to figure out its future: Ukraine.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In 2004, that former Soviet republic in the heart of Europe erupted in pro-democracy protests: the Orange Revolution.

GREENE: But the narrative got more complicated in 2010, when the target of the Orange Revolution, a politician named Viktor Yanukovych, was elected as Ukraine's president.

MONTAGNE: Now protesters are back in the streets of Kiev, braving sub-freezing temperatures to protest the president's refusal to sign an agreement that would have aligned Ukraine with the European Union, rather than with Russia.

And let's go to Kiev now. NPR's Corey Flintoff is there. Corey, good morning.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So, you have been out on the main square this morning. What is the scene right now?

FLINTOFF: Well, as you know, David, the square is the commercial heart of Kiev, and normally, it's quite festive this time of year. There's even a huge artificial Christmas tree in the center. But this year, it was never finished. It was never fully erected. And all there is now is a kind of a cone-shaped, steel structure where the tree should be, and it's covered with flags and protest banners. All around it, there are rows of tents. People are camped out. There's probably a couple thousand people sleeping the night there, and it is bitterly, bitterly cold here. But people seem absolutely determined to stay here until they get some kind of satisfaction.

GREENE: Well, remind us what that satisfaction might be. I mean, what do these protestors want?

FLINTOFF: Well, what this originally started as was a dispute over whether Ukraine would align itself with the European Union or with Russia - economically and politically, basically. The president, Viktor Yanukovych, was supposed to sign an agreement late last month that would have set Ukraine on the path to becoming, basically, probably an EU, eventually. But it would have required democratic reforms. It would have required Ukraine to improve its election system, create an independent judiciary, fight corruption, do all these things. And that's something this present government has found it very hard to agree with.

And so last month, when the agreement was supposed to be signed, at the last moment President Yanukovych said that he was not going to do it. That brought out tens of thousands of people into the streets here. Over last weekend, there was a rather violent clash between police and protestors. And the police actually beat protestors quite severely, quite violently. The prime minister later actually apologized for it. But that brought out an even greater number of people. And over the weekend, there were about 300,000 people in the square - 300,000 very angry Ukrainians.

GREENE: And, Corey, President Yanukovych, as you mentioned, under a lot of pressure by the European Union to sign this deal, become closer to Europe, also from Russia that wants closer trade ties from Ukraine. I mean, why is everyone fighting over this country? Why is Ukraine so important?

FLINTOFF: Well, it's a market of more than 40 million people - about 43 million. Its industries and its economy are in bad shape. They need modernization. You know, they need to be brought up to European standards. But people are looking to the future about this, and, you know, the future of Ukraine could be an immensely valuable prize for either side.

GREENE: It feels like we are seeing some sort of proxy battle playing out between Russia and Europe. Is that what this is turning into?

FLINTOFF: It makes you wonder if we're not seeing the start of a kind of an economic Cold War here, a sort of a trade version of the Cold War that defined both the East and the West, you know, for so many decades.

GREENE: And we should remember that this is a moment when President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin have been trying at least to work together on some pretty big issues, like Syria, like Iran.

FLINTOFF: Yes, absolutely. And it's not clear what role Ukraine might play in this. We know that Secretary Kerry canceled the trip to Ukraine and went instead to Moldova, which is a country that actually has signed an agreement with the European Union. Does that mean the United States is trying to downplay its connections to Ukraine, to downplay its support for Ukraine in order not to stir up another hornet's nest with President Putin and Russia? That's not clear. And many people in Ukraine here are asking, well, where is the United States, as far as support for the democratic process here?

GREENE: All right. NPR's Corey Flintoff, reporting for us in Kiev. Corey, thanks a lot.

FLINTOFF: Thank you, David. It's my pleasure.

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