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Ukraine Opposition Rejects President's Concessions


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

In the Ukraine, the streets have erupted into violence again this morning with protesters vowing they will keep up the pressure on the government until it folds. The country's president this morning offered concessions but they were rejected by the opposition. And now, protesters are back in the streets, demanding that the president step aside and hold new elections.

Joining us now from Kiev, the capital city, is NPR's Corey Flintoff. Good morning, Corey.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: Can you start by explaining what has happened there politically in the last 24 hours? Sounds like protest leaders haven't ruled out negotiations but they nevertheless are still back on the main square?

FLINTOFF: Exactly, right. But things have been moving fast. Yesterday, President Viktor Yanukovych met with the three top leaders of the opposition. He offered a package of concessions. And he pretty much had to do something because the situation for the government has been deteriorating. The protests are spreading to cities in Western Ukraine, people there have seized control of government buildings. And the protests here in Kiev got much more violent over the past week after the government passed this law that would have banned most public protests.

So, Yanukovych offered the post of prime minister to one of the top protest leaders, Arseniy Yatsenyuk. He also offered to change that anti-protest law and to free the protesters who've been jailed over the past two months.

MARTIN: So those are the concessions that Yanukovych has offered. Why hasn't the opposition accepted those?

FLINTOFF: Well, the protesters have been demanding that Yanukovych step down and call new elections. As far as the concessions go, analysts I've talked to say that a lot of these concessions could potentially create problems for the opposition down the road. One told me that the whole package amounts to a kind of poison pill if the opposition accepts it. The bottom line is that Yanukovych would remain president and he still has control of the parliament.

So the opposition leaders told protesters last night that they're willing to keep talking, but they have a lot more demands that it to be satisfied. And those demands go right back to the dispute that set off these demonstrations back in November. They want to the government to sign a trade agreement that would align Ukraine with the European Union. And they want the government to free all political prisoners, including the president's nemesis, his main rival, the former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

MARTIN: Corey, these protests have been going on for two months at this point. Can you remind us just how violent they've become?

FLINTOFF: Well, I don't want to over emphasize the violence because the fighting that we see on TV, the burning buses and that sort of thing, takes place on a street that's about three blocks away from the main protest, and it involves a matter of several hundred protesters who have been throwing rocks and fighting with police who respond with rubber bullets and teargas and stun grenades and that thing. It's quite dramatic television, but it's really quite far away from the peaceful demonstration that's taking place in the central part of the city.

MARTIN: And I understand you've been out and about this morning talking to protesters. What do they think about this deal? What's the reaction?

FLINTOFF: Well, everyone I talked with this morning was deeply distrustful of the president's offer. Here's a typical response from a 29-year-old woman who gave her name as Aleksandra.

ALEKSANDRA: Oh, it looks like a trap, actually. Because they know that Maidan won't support it, because they only promise something but they never fulfill their promises.

FLINTOFF: When she says Maidan there - Maidan won't support it - she's referring to the protest movement as a whole. She went on to say that whoever takes over the government is going to inherit a financial and political mess, which they might then be blamed for when the elections take place. But that said, a lot of the people I've spoken with over the past few days have sounded fairly optimistic. They really think the opposition is winning but they're prepared for a pretty hard road ahead.

Just to give you the flavor, Rachel, of the protest this morning, this is what we heard as we were passing through the central square, which is known as the Maidan. It's an Orthodox Christian service, held in the freezing cold and thousands of people gathered to listen.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in foreign language)

CROWD: (Singing in foreign language)

MARTIN: Some of the sounds emanating onto the streets of Kiev this morning.

NPR's Corey Flintoff talking with us from Kiev. Thank thanks so much, Corey.

FLINTOFF: Thank you. My pleasure, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.