As Protests Renew In Ukraine, Fears Of Violence Return
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And now to Ukraine where the crisis is intensifying. Today, there were more clashes between protesters and police in the capital city, Kiev. This after a massive protest turned violent yesterday, when more than 100,000 people turned out to denounce a new law that limits public protests. The protests have shaken Ukraine for two months, as the opposition claims President Viktor Yanukovych is turning increasingly autocratic and aligning his country with Russia.
NPR's Corey Flintoff joins me from Moscow to talk about the latest developments. And, Corey, let's go back to November when these protests began. President Yanukovych had rejected a deal that would have brought Ukraine closer to the European Union. Now though it seems to have grown far beyond that. What's at stake here?
COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Well, that deal that Yanukovych rejected would have opened up greater trade and investment from the EU. But it would have also required Yanukovych to fight corruption and make democratic reforms. And instead, he made a deal with Russia's President Putin that, as far as we know at least, didn't require any reforms. Russia is lending Ukraine $15 billion. It's giving a big discount on the price of natural gas that the country relies on for most of its energy. And the opposition accuses Yanukovych of making the country so deeply indebted to Russia that it will never get out of Moscow's orbit.
BLOCK: OK, so that was the origin of these protests which then seemed to be flagging and then there was this new law that I mentioned, this anti-protest law that was passed on Friday. According to the opposition, that law is designed to ban nearly all kinds of democratic expression. What exactly does it do?
FLINTOFF: Well, it bans virtually everything that the opposition has been doing for the last two months. And it would really destroy the protest if it were enforced. For instance, the law bans protesters from setting up tents or stages or sound systems without permission. It bans protesters from wearing masks or helmets. At yesterday's demonstration, some people lampooned that provision by wearing kitchen colanders and cooking pots on their heads.
BLOCK: Well, let's talk about what happened yesterday and again today in Kiev. Corey, there are images of buses burning, of protesters throwing rocks and fireworks and flares at police. Are you hearing from people that they expect this to turn even more violent?
FLINTOFF: Yes, that's what a lot of people are afraid of. Yesterday, the opposition leaders pleaded with people not to use violence. They're saying that a lot of this fighting is started by provocateurs. That is, thugs who are linked to the government. When the clashes broke out yesterday, one of the leaders, Vitaly Klitschko actually went to the site, he got between the police and the fighters and he tried to break it up. He was sprayed in the face with a fire extinguisher by one of the fighters who'd been using it to spray the police.
Klitschko then called for a meeting with Yanukovych and the two met last night and agreed to negotiate. So that started today, but there's so little trust between the two sides that it's not clear whether they can accomplish anything.
BLOCK: Now, Vitali Klitschko, who you mentioned, is a world heavyweight boxing champion. He's emerged as one of the leader of this opposition movement. Do you think he can pull the movement together?
FLINTOFF: Well, no one seems to know at this point. Leadership is a really serious problem for the opposition. It came out at that big protest yesterday. Klitschko is one of several leaders of different opposition groups and they all seem to be positioning themselves as presidential candidates to oppose Yanukovych. And that has caused a lot of dissatisfaction among the rank-and-file protesters. They want a unified leadership and they want to hear a decisive plan for dealing with the government.
BLOCK: OK. NPR's Corey Flintoff in Moscow, we were talking about the ongoing protests in Ukraine. Corey, thanks so much.
FLINTOFF: My pleasure, Melissa.
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