Opposing Protests Pull Eastern Ukraine In Two Directions

In eastern Ukraine, demonstrators supporting a unified Ukraine are rallying just blocks from where pro-Russian militants are occupying a government building.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The deal struck in Geneva today aims to end the violence Ukraine has seen over the last few months. There were snipers shooting at protesters in Kiev's Independence Square. In eastern Ukraine, pro-Russian separatists forced their way through police barricades to overtake government buildings. But not every protest has been violent. Today, people who oppose the separatists staged a demonstration in the city of Donetsk, and NPR's Ari Shapiro was there.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: This is Victory Park, right on the banks of the Kalmius River. There are lots of threes, grass and a big stone plaza, which right now is surrounded by more than a hundred police with body armor, helmets and riot shields, all making a solid perimeter facing outwards. There's clearly a fear that people will show up at this pro-unity rally and try to make trouble.

TATIANA: (Through Translator) Unfortunately, our opponents are not very friendly. As a rule, they use violence to make their points. And rallies like this don't usually end very well.

SHAPIRO: Tatiana is a doctor, part of a team of volunteer medics standing on the sidelines.

TATIANA: (Through Translator) This is my first time taking part in a demonstration like this.

SHAPIRO: Are you a little nervous to be here?

TATIANA: (Through Translator) Of course, I'm nervous.

SHAPIRO: There have been scary rumors on social media all day. People are afraid the threat of violence will keep everyone away. But then, the crowd starts to arrive - first a few hundred, then a thousand, then too many too count. They start spilling over the edges of the plaza. People wrap themselves in the Ukrainian flag. They sing the national anthem out of tune at the top of their lungs.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in foreign language)

SHAPIRO: Someone has distributed flags on long poles. People wave the stripes of blue and yellow high above their head as the sun sets behind the stage. The crowd chants, (foreign language spoken), meaning - this region, Donbass, is part of Ukraine.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Foreign language spoken)

SHAPIRO: This pro-unity crowd looks younger and more professional than the typical separatist rally: fewer factor workers, more students. Olga is a pharmacist. She says these voices have not been very loud for the last few weeks but she argues this is the real face of Donetsk.

OLGA: Most people go to work, go to school, go to university. They have their own time. They don't have time to go every single day and shouting Russia, Russia like crazy. It's not necessary.

SHAPIRO: The Ukrainian government accuses Russia of trying to duplicate its Crimea playbook here in eastern Ukraine. Russia annexed Crimea after a hastily planned referendum. In Crimea, unity supporters tried to organize a rally like this, but nobody showed up. They were too afraid. Genady Baglikov says this gathering demonstrates that Donetsk is different.

GENADY BAGLIKOV: (Through translator) It happened there because people let it happen. That's why we need to be here, to do our best to not let that scenario repeat. It happened in Crimea because people were apathetic.

SHAPIRO: After an hour and a half, people unfurl a massive Ukrainian flag over their heads. It nearly covers the crowd. And then the rally ends. The violence never came. The crowd walks home waving Ukrainian flags and cars honk in support as they pass by. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Donetsk.

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