In Kharkiv, A Snapshot Of Ukraine's Tumult And Hope

In Ukraine's second largest city, Kharkiv, both pro-Europe and pro-Russian groups are planning more rallies this weekend. Some residents fear civil war; others believe compromise is still possible.

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A Russian military truck broke down the gates of a Ukrainian military base in Crimea today, and the armed men inside the truck tried to take over the base. No shots were fired, and the Ukrainian forces refused to surrender. According to Russia's Interfax news agency, the two sides negotiated and the armed men withdrew. It's the latest in a series of standoffs brought on as Russian and pro-Russian forces try to usurp the authority of the new government in Kiev.

This weekend, in Ukraine's second largest city, Kharkiv, both pro-Kiev and pro-Moscow groups are planning mass rallies. NPR's Emily Harris has this report.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: A statue of Vladimir Lenin still stands tall on Kharkiv's Freedom Square. His long overcoat is open, his right arm extended as if he's inviting you to sit down. Igor Mosolov(ph) is organizing a pro-Russia rally near Lenin this weekend.

IGOR MOSOLOV: (Through Translator) Tomorrow at noon, we're having a big demonstration. We're going to explain our wishes that the Kharkov region hold a referendum. If they don't, we'll hold our own referendum in the square.

HARRIS: Mosolov says all of eastern Ukraine should vote on the same question that current Crimean leaders want on a ballot: Do you want to join Russia? Although there has been just one day of serious conflict in Kharkiv recently, he predicts civil war. As a small crowd gathers, another rally organizer, Sergei Myseyev, explains why eastern and western Ukraine see the world differently.

SERGEI MYSEYEV: (Through Translator) This area came under the influence of Moscow in 1503. The very far west of Ukraine, only in 1946. We've been with Russia 500 years. And them, less than 100. They were Austro-Hungarian.

HARRIS: Myseyev gets some applause for his history lesson, and an interruption.

(APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

HARRIS: You lie, another man says. Who's paying you? Like in many Ukrainian cities, pro-Europe activists here tried to pull down Kharkiv's statue of Lenin. They failed, but angered many residents. A confrontation a week later injured scores of people and wound up with the Russian flag temporarily flying above Kharkiv's regional government building. Pro-Europe organizer Dmytro Pylypets(ph) says he now believes the attempt to take down the statue was encouraged by provocateurs.

DMYTRO PYLYPETS: (Through Translator) It was a preconceived diversion, a planned special operation. Maybe the mayor is behind it, maybe Russia special services, the internal security or the KGB. This is very beneficial for Russia because they realize that if everything here comes down, if the revolution is won, then Russia is next. That government will fall.

HARRIS: His side is planning its own big rally Sunday. Kharkiv's acting governor, the pro-Kiev Igor Baluta, says 300 police brought in from other areas are all set for duty. He also claims there is evidence of ongoing Russian military movements along the border, just 25 miles from here.

IGOR BALUTA: (Through Translator) Periodically, the Russian military has moved close to our border, then moved back. This has been going on for several days. I believe they are doing this to cause worry and provocations.

HARRIS: Baluta is in office because the previous governor resigned. That is Mikhail Dobkin, strongly pro-Moscow. The Kiev central government has reportedly opened a criminal investigation against him for acting against Ukraine. Dobkin says he plans to run for president and to change the country.

BALUTA: (Through Translator) The way Ukraine was set up in 1991 doesn't work anymore. We need to re-organize the government so we don't hate each other.

HARRIS: He thinks more diffuse power is the answer, a federation with strong local rights. Zurab Alasania is from Ukraine's west, but has lived in Kharkiv for 25 years. If federalization would quiet the claims that Russians in Ukraine face discrimination, fine, he says, let's try it that way. But not until Russian troops leave.

ZURAB ALASANIA: But not war. Nobody wants here war.

HARRIS: What happens next, he says, is up to Russia. Emily Harris, NPR News, Kharkiv.

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