Anti-Government Protests In Ukraine Turn Deadly

New laws to curb protests are in effect in Ukraine but anti-government demonstrators remain on the streets of the capital Kiev. For more on the protests that have turned deadly, Renee Montagne talks to David Stern, a reporter for the BBC.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

We've been following the demonstrations in Ukraine since they began last fall. Those protests were sparked by the president's refusal to sign a trade deal with the European Union, apparently under pressure from Russia. Over time, hundreds of thousands took the streets in the capital, Kiev, to demand that the government look more toward the West than to Russia. And, this morning, the protest took a deadly turn: reports that at least two protestors have been killed in clashes with police.

We go now to David Stern, who's in Kiev for the BBC. Good morning.

DAVID STERN: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now, these protestors had been more or less peaceful until recent days. But now, this morning, we're seeing scenes of riot police and heavy snow, burned-out buses and cars. What are you seeing?

STERN: Well, clashes have been going on for four days, and it's been a remarkable scene. The protesters have been hurling Molotov cocktails and also bricks that they've pried up with crowbars. They're constantly beating on drums or barrels, I guess you could say metal barrels and lampposts. And the police have been responding with stun grenades and with plastic or rubber bullets. But, as you said, it's taken a deadly turn. But, undoubtedly, this will help will help inflame passions even more, and the situation could get even worse.

MONTAGNE: Why did these protests turn more violent in these last few days?

STERN: Probably a number of reasons. Most recently, there's been an added element that's inflamed passions. This is a packet of laws that parliament passed last week, and it went into effect today. The protestors call them the dictator laws. They're anti-protest laws, which administer a number of very heavy fines, and also jail sentences for a wide range of activities, including wearing helmets at the protests. Obviously, people wear helmets because they don't want to be beaten on the head or clobbered. And critics have said that, in fact, they cracked down on freedom of speech and freedom of assembly in general.

MONTAGNE: I'm wondering: We have heard stories that provocateurs might be among the crowd, causing violence, giving the government a pretext to do just this.

STERN: The opposition has - says that there are agent provocateurs, outside forces that are trying to discredit them, or to make the situation even worse. It should be said, though, that people that are throwing the Molotov cocktails are members of the protest movement. They're, in fact, right-wing extremists. There is an ultra-nationalist element to the protests, although it's not the majority, but they are a very committed and vocal part. And they are the ones who decided that enough was enough, that it's time to fight back.

MONTAGNE: So, this all started over this trade deal with Europe. And in these weeks of protest, what are the other issues that have developed?

STERN: Well, the issues - as you say, that it started out as a protest movement demanding closer ties with the European Union, after President Viktor Yanukovych unexpectedly pulled out of a deal. But yes, they've expanded considerably, and the protesters are now demanding the resignation of President Yanukovych. They want early presidential elections. They want early parliamentary elections. So, it's an extreme position.

So you have these two sides that are, I guess you could say, dug into their respective positions, and there's very little common ground between them. They're trying to hold talks, but obviously, if one side is demanding the president resign and the other side is saying the president's going nowhere, there's not a whole lot of room for compromise. And that's leading a lot of observers to think that this is going to go on for a while, and, in fact, could escalate even further.

MONTAGNE: Journalist David Stern was speaking to us from Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. Thank you very much.

STERN: Thank you.

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