The Ukrainian Prime Minister's Visit, As Seen From Behind Barricades

Ukraine's interim prime minister visited Donetsk Friday in an effort to reduce tensions in the east of the country. Pro-Moscow militants among the area's largely Russian-speaking population have seized two government buildings in the region and are demanding referendums on the area's future. NPR's Ari Shapiro has been behind the barricades at one of the occupations.

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Ukraine's prime minister travelled east today to a city where pro-Russian demonstrators have occupied a government building since Sunday. NPR's Ari Shapiro went inside one of those buildings. He's seen firsthand how the protesters are living and how the standoff has changed since it started almost a week ago. Ari joins from the city of Donetsk. And, Ari, let's start with the prime minister's visit. What was on the agenda?

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Well, people speculated that he might go to the scene of the demonstration, but he chose not to. It could have been seen as confrontational if he had done that and the government has been trying really hard to avoid any sort of provocation that could make the situation turn violent. Instead, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk held a press conference where he made some concessions to the protesters. Here's a clip from what he said.

PRIME MINISTER ARSENIY YATSENYUK: (Foreign language spoken)

SHAPIRO: And what he's basically saying is that the government should delegate authority to regional councils and delegate more of its power. That's been a key demand from the protesters and from Russia. The concession did not satisfy the demonstrators. They would like a vote on breaking off altogether from Ukraine. But it was a sign that Prime Minister Yatsenyuk is trying to reach a compromise with the protesters here rather than confront them head-on.

CORNISH: Now, Ari, in that cut, the prime minister was actually speaking Russian. How significant is that?

SHAPIRO: It is significant. A lot of the tensions here revolve around language. People who speak Russian say that they are discriminated against and not given the same opportunities as Ukrainian speakers. Russian tends to be the primary language that most people here in eastern Ukraine speak. And when Prime Minister Yatsenyuk speaks in public, he typically speaks in Ukrainian. So his decision to speak in Russian today at this news conference seems to be another sort of olive branch to the pro-Russian protesters here.

CORNISH: And as we mentioned, you've been at the scene of the protest. Describe the atmosphere there.

SHAPIRO: It was completely different from a few days ago. When I went there with my translator on Tuesday, the weather was warm, people were with their kids. There were balloons, flags. It felt almost like a cross between a military occupation and an outdoor music festival, except there were real Molotov cocktails standing behind rows of tires with razor wire and sandbags. Well, today, the weather has dropped below freezing and the barricades look completely different.

The protesters have built really tall, imposing, fortified walls, several solid layers of defense. And there's just one set entrance with somebody checking identification for everybody who goes by. My translator and I walked up to one of those entrances and we asked if we could interview an organizer of the protest and they whisked us right inside the building.

CORNISH: And what did you see?

SHAPIRO: Well, this is this 11-story building that has been occupied by the protesters since Sunday and inside, it felt very professional, very hierarchical. There were clearly some people taking orders from others. We had an escort who took us through checkpoints where we showed our IDs. They searched our bags. And then inside, there were lines of young men running up and down staircases carrying pallets of supplies. We saw a big pile of canned and jarred food, which suggests that people in the building expect they may be there for a while.

Interestingly, the lights were on, even though the government says that it has cut off electricity to the building. There was a table with women slicing cheese and sausages and pickled tomatoes for sandwiches. And the halls were lined with handmade signs sporting anti-European and anti-American slogans written in Russian.

CORNISH: Now, Ari, did you see any weapons?

SHAPIRO: Makeshift weapons - Molotov cocktails and lead pipes. But, significantly, we did not see any guns, which is a big difference between Donetsk, the city where we are now, and Luhansk, the other city where protesters have taken over a building. In Luhansk, the building that they are in has a lot of automatic weapons, grenades, gas masks. When we were there the other day, we saw people patrolling the roof with automatic weapons. That suggests that if this standoff does end violently, we may see very different scenarios play out in these two cities.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Ari Shapiro, reporting from Donetsk, Ukraine. Ari, thank you.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome.

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