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From Kiev To The Country At Large, Ukraine Protests May Spread


In Ukraine, it appears that massive protests are escalating. Today, protesters took over a government ministry building in the capital, Kiev, and they've extended their barricades further into the city. At least three protesters have been killed in clashes with riot police. And the protests have spread to other parts of Ukraine, especially in the west. The protests began two months ago when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich backed away from a deal with the European Union and instead tilted toward closer relations with Russia. Protesters were further inflamed when the government imposed new laws restricting the right to protest.

NPR's Moscow correspondent Corey Flintoff joins me now from the center of Kiev. He's in Maidan Square. And, Corey, you're just back in Kiev after time in Moscow. How have things changed since the last time you were in Ukraine?

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Things have changed surprisingly, Melissa. I'm looking around at the tent camp that's been built in the central square here in Kiev, and it's much more permanent. It's a tent city, essentially. There are tents built from one end of the square to the other. And there are enormous barricades now, mostly built up with bags filled with snow and then frozen. So this is now a fortified tent camp and it's going to be very, very difficult for the government or the riot police to dislodge these protesters. They are very determined.

BLOCK: And what about the tone of the rhetoric that you're hearing there?

FLINTOFF: Well, it varies quite a lot. The main protest leaders have been urging the crowd to maintain a sort of truce, at least until we hear more from the government. And the truce has largely been obeyed. It's been fairly quiet today. And, in fact, the areas where there were significant clashes over the past four days have been fairly quiet. I do see people here in what amounts to battle gear. They're wearing helmets and various kinds of homemade armor and carrying various kinds of homemade weapons - batons and sticks and that sort of thing. So they're obviously - they seem very ready to fight, if need be.

BLOCK: Corey, you went today to that government building the protesters were able to take over. What did you see there?

FLINTOFF: Well, it's basically a government office building. It's the office of agricultural policy. It's about a six-story building. And it was taken over this morning by about 30 protesters. We talked to their leader, who is now the supervisor of the building. He said that the government employees there let them come in, and there was no resistance whatsoever. They moved in and they're planning to house people in the halls of this office building. They think they can house as many as 3,000 people in what essentially will be a warm space and allow the protest to carry on longer.

BLOCK: Just get them out of the cold.

FLINTOFF: Exactly right.

BLOCK: Corey, there have been talks, negotiations of some sort between President Yanukovych and the leaders of the opposition. Is there any sense that those are bearing fruit in any way?

FLINTOFF: Well, it's very hard to tell what's going on. At one point, we were hearing that it sounded like Yanukovych might be willing to compromise. He's discussed the idea of having an amnesty for protesters who've been arrested and releasing them and making changes in the government, a government shakeup that would remove some of the officials who have been involved in violence against the protesters and presumably to put in someone who would be more acceptable to them.

BLOCK: I did read, Corey, that when the opposition leaders came out after those talks to address their crowds in the street, that they were greeted with jeers. It's not clear to me that the opposition leaders control the masses in the streets.

FLINTOFF: That's absolutely right. There's a big leadership problem here. The rank and file protesters have been increasingly dissatisfied with the fact that this sort of triumvirate that's been leading them - the leaders of three separate parties - haven't been able to settle either on a single program, a single policy toward the government. They haven't been able to make decisions in an effective way. And, you know, they just haven't been able to lead very well. And people are getting tired of it. That's why the leaders are getting so much guff from the rank and file. They want this triumvirate to decide on a single leader who can speak for them and can start making effective, decisive actions.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Corey Flintoff from the center of Kiev, Ukraine. Corey, thanks so much.

FLINTOFF: Thank you, Melissa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.