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Slovyansk Strengthens Resolve To Fight Kiev Government


Vice President Joe Biden has wrapped up his visit to the Ukrainian capital of Kiev which was a show of support for that country's beleaguered interim government. This morning, the U.S. announced nearly $60 million in economic, political and non-lethal military aid. That assistance comes as Kiev and Moscow accuse each other of breaking last week's agreement that called for armed groups to lay down their weapons and vacate public spaces. But so far, neither pro-Europe protesters in Kiev, nor pro-Russia demonstrators in Eastern Ukraine are budging.

NPR's Eleanor Beardsley traveled to one troubled city in the east where three pro-Russia separatists where shot to death at a checkpoint by unknown assailants.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: If you want to understand what's dividing Ukrainians in the east and west, a good place to start is the town square of Slovyansk, population 120,000. It's a warm spring day and children ride around in toy electric cars in the central plaza, which is dominated by an imposing statue of Lenin.


BEARDSLEY: Soviet military songs are being piped out from the occupied town hall across the street. A small crowd has gathered around the statue of Lenin where pictures of the three men killed in the checkpoint shootout on Sunday have been placed. Some people lay flowers. A sign reads: Our Heroes.


BEARDSLEY: At first, no one wants to talk to a foreign journalist. Then, a 55-year-old man, who calls himself Nicolai, breaks the barrier.

NICOLAI: No very good life this. Life is bad. (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: It's impossible to live on a salary of $140 a month, says Nicolai. Life is getting worse and prices are going up.


BEARDSLEY: Suddenly a crowd has gathered round and everybody wants to talk all at once. My translator can barely keep up. The list of grievances is long. First off, these people truly believe there's a resurgence of fascism in the western, pro-European part of their country.

VICTORIA: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: We still remember how our grandparents fought the Nazis, says 42-year-old Victoria, who doesn't give her last name. We don't understand why the West is supporting these people.

This crowd believes the armed militants occupying the government building behind them are protecting their town. The talk inevitably turns to the crumbling economy.

Why can Russia make your life better? That's what I'd like to ask you, more than Ukraine.


BEARDSLEY: They say their economy is failing because their traditionally close industrial ties with Russia are being severed. Our factories are idle because there are no orders from Russia, they tell me. The people of Slovyansk want a referendum to decide their own future, says this group. But they won't be voting in the illegitimate presidential election being organized for May.


BEARDSLEY: Our next stop is the checkpoint where the men were killed on Sunday. The road is charred where cars were burned. The group of 20 or so men manning the checkpoint today say their dead colleagues were simple citizens - a bus driver, a worker. Their deaths have only strengthened resolve here, says 27-year-old Anton.

ANTON: (Through Translator) Actually we are staying here to support our village from fascists that will try to come in here.

BEARDSLEY: And then they turn the questions on me. We don't invade in your territory so why does America try to tell us what to do, they ask. These men believe America sponsored the Maidan protests in Kiev that brought down Ukraine's pro-Russia president in February. They also say America was behind the weekend killings here because they found American-made shells.

As far as choosing between Russia and Europe, these men say no one ever asked them if they wanted closer ties with the European Union. Kiev, they say, never consults people here in the east of the country.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Slovyansk, Ukraine.


MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.