Ukrainian President Withstands No-Confidence Vote Amid Protests
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
In Ukraine, thousands of protesters continue to occupy the center of the capital city, Kiev. Over the past few days, it's been a scene reminiscent of the 2004 Orange Revolution. These protests erupted after Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign a promised trade agreement that would have aligned Ukraine with the European Union. The protest intensified over the weekend in response to police violence aimed at driving out the protesters.
NPR's Corey Flintoff is in Kiev, in a building that's being used as opposition headquarters on the city's main square. And, Corey, can you tell us what the scene looks like?
COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Well, this is just a hive of activity here in the building that's being used as an organizing center. But there outside, there are still thousands of people in the streets despite sub-freezing temperatures out there. And they've set up rows of tents in the Maidan. That's the independence square here, where many people are actually spending the night.
Normally, the centerpiece of this square would be a giant lighted Christmas tree, but right now that tree is just a bare metal frame that's plastered with all kinds of protest signs. The branches for the tree, the plastic branches have been incorporated into the barriers that protesters used to keep the police at bay.
SIEGEL: Now, I understand that the opposition lost a parliamentary attempt to bring down the government today. What happened?
FLINTOFF: Well, the opposition called for a vote of no confidence, but the ruling Party of Regions - that's President Yanukovych's party and his allies - still have a solid majority in parliament and that vote failed by quite a large margin. At that point, thousands of prostesters gathered in front of the presidential administration building, and then they moved on here to the central square.
We're not seeing any police presence here now. And the government actually seems to have pulled back the police for the moment.
SIEGEL: Well, what's next for the prostesters then?
FLINTOFF: It's not clear at this point whether anything decisive is likely to happen. President Yanukovych himself is actually out of the country. He's on an official visit to China.
We're hearing from people in the opposition who think that the government may just be trying to stall for time, just hoping that the cold weather and this climate of uncertainty will discourage people. But, of course, that didn't happen during the Orange Revolution in 2004. Prostesters then held out in freezing weather for weeks, until they got a new election.
SIEGEL: And back in 2004, there was a lot at stake; the question of whether Ukrainians would accept a rigged election or not. What's at stake this time?
FLINTOFF: Well, the country's economic future is really at stake. On one hand, the European Union is offering Ukraine a free trade agreement that would knock down some substantial trade barriers. But they would also force Ukraine to bring its industry up to European standards. People who favor associating with the E.U. say that that will help the country in the long run, but it'll mean some economic pain in the short-term, especially as Ukraine struggles to become competitive in the European Zone.
In the meantime, though, Russia is offering some immediate benefits if Ukraine joins a Moscow-led customs union. Russia has been promising cheaper prices for Russian natural gas. And, of course, Ukraine is very dependent on that energy. Russia also seems to be promising billions of dollars worth of potential debt forgiveness. And Ukraine is a deeply-indebted country so that's important for them, too.
If Ukraine turns toward Europe, Russia is threatening that it'll call in Ukraine's debts, and it would also throw up really serious trade barriers to Ukraine's exports.
SIEGEL: OK. Corey, thank you.
FLINTOFF: Thank you, Robert.
SIEGEL: That's NPR's Corey Flintoff, speaking to us from Kiev, capital city of Ukraine.
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