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In Eastern Ukraine, Normality Rules Except At Ground Zero

Emir Gushinov (in green) says not many children are taking his pony rides in Donetsk nowadays. But he said that's not because of the unrest nearby. "The main reason is that it's not a holiday," he says. (Ari Shapiro/NPR)

In the eastern city of Donetsk, protesters hung a huge banner declaring a government office building to be the "People's Republic of Donetsk."

These pro-Moscow activists want to pull away from Europe and align Ukraine more with Russia. The protests in Donetsk and elsewhere in eastern Ukraine are the focus of the ongoing crisis in the country and it has international repercussions that reach well beyond the country's borders.

Yet life in the rest of Donetsk is going on completely as normal.

The occupied government building in the center of town is surrounded by razor wire and sandbags. It feels like the kind of place where nothing will happen unless, suddenly, something dramatic does.

Young men wearing face masks spend all day walking back and forth, carrying metal pipes. Molotov cocktails sit unused behind stacks of tires. It's calm, but the activists seem pretty tightly wound up.

A skinny young guy with a wispy moustache and a black stocking cap demands to see our papers. He says his name is Vadim, and he wants eastern Ukraine to join Russia.

Asked if he expects an attack, he responds, "We've been informed that it will happen."

He says this information has come from "higher up the chain of command," adding, that if attacked, "we will defend ourselves to the end."

When asked about the weapons he and his fellow activists have, he describes that as "private information."

A Different World A Few Blocks Away

While this conversation is going on, women are making sausage sandwiches for the occupiers. Parents walk by with little kids on their shoulders.

It's a strange juxtaposition.

Every now and then someone takes the microphone to deliver a rousing speech about Russia. The sound system plays patriotic Russian folk tunes.

Just three blocks away, the music is totally different. Two guys have pulled out their instruments. A guitar case lies open on the ground. And people walking toss in small bills while the musicians play ... Adele.

These musicians are surrounded by sidewalk cafes, playgrounds, and flowering trees.

While the political protest is just a stone's throw away, the musicians say they don't care a bit about it.

Neither does a guy standing nearby with a pony. Emir Gushinov is offering rides for kids. Business is slow, he says, but not because of the political turmoil.

"The main reason is that it's not a holiday and all the kids are in school," he says. "This is a great business at vacation time. But I guess the political situation also influences things a bit."

Some people strolling down this boulevard say they lean toward Russia in the east. Others would prefer that Ukraine align with Europe in the west.

But almost all of them say they don't feel like they're at the center of a revolution, and they don't care much about the drama taking place just down the road.

At the end of the day, people leave the scene of the protest like concert-goers after an outdoor festival.

A man named Michal walks with a few of his friends. He's wearing the orange and black ribbon of the demonstrators. He looks at the kids eating ice cream, the grandmothers sitting on benches, and says most people here are just "unconscious."

"Only about 10 percent of the people who live here really understand what's happening," he says.

When I ask whether that 10 percent can change the fate of eastern Ukraine, he coolly says that it's always been this way. "The minority decides the fate of the majority."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.

Secretary of State John Kerry is accusing Russia of inflaming tensions in the eastern part of Ukraine.

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: Russia has a choice: To work with the international community to help build an independent Ukraine that could be a bridge between the East and West, not the object of a tug-of-war.

GREENE: Now Russia says a tug-of-war is already under way. They accuse the West of orchestrating the downfall of Ukraine's pro-Russian former president. Whoever is to blame, pro-Russian protesters are occupying local government buildings for a fourth day. Ukraine's interior minister said, today, that they will be gone within 48 hours, through negotiation or by force. Now let's go to one of these scenes. Occupiers in the city of Donetsk who want to separate from Ukraine have hung a huge banner from a building, announcing the People's Republic of Donetsk.

But as NPR's Ari Shapiro reports, life in much of the city seems fairly normal.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: This government building in the center of town is surrounded by razor wire and sandbags. It feels like the kind of place where nothing will happen unless, suddenly, something dramatic does.

Young men wearing face masks spend all day walking back and forth, carrying metal pipes. Molotov cocktails sit unused behind stacks of tires. It's calm, but the activists seem pretty tightly wound up.

VADIM: (Foreign language spoken)

SHAPIRO: A skinny young guy with a wispy moustache and a black stocking cap demands to see our papers. He says his name is Vadim, and he wants eastern Ukraine to join Russia.

VADIM: (Through Translator) The atmosphere is quite tense. Everybody is ready for an attack.

SHAPIRO: Do you expect that you will be attacked?

VADIM: (Through Translator) We've been informed that it will happen.

SHAPIRO: Where does this information come from?

VADIM: (Through Translator) Higher up the chain of command.

SHAPIRO: And if that happens, what will your response be?

VADIM: (Through Translator) We will defend ourselves to the end.

SHAPIRO: Do you have many weapons inside?

VADIM: (Through Translator) Let it be. That's private information.

SHAPIRO: While this conversation is going on, women are making sausage sandwiches for the occupiers. Parents walk by with little kids on their shoulders. It's a strange juxtaposition. Every now and then, someone takes the microphone to deliver a rousing speech about Russia. The sound system plays patriotic Russian folk tunes.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUSSIAN FOLK MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: Just three blocks away, the music is totally different. Two guys have pulled out their instruments. A guitar case lies open on the ground. And people walking toss in small bills while the musicians play Adele.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: These musicians are surrounded by sidewalk cafes, playgrounds, and flowering trees. While the political protest is a stone's throw away. The musicians say they don't care a bit about it. Neither does a guy standing nearby with a pony. Emir Gushinov is offering rides for kids. Business is slow, he says, but not because of the political turmoil.

EMIR GUSHINOV: (Through Translator) The main reason is that it's not a holiday and all the kids are in school. This is a great business at vacation time. But I guess the political situation also influences things a bit.

SHAPIRO: Some of the people strolling down this boulevard say they lean towards Russia in the East. Others would prefer that Ukraine align with Europe in the West. But almost all of them say they don't feel like they're at the center of a revolution, and they don't care much about the drama taking place just down the road.

It's now the end of the day, and people are leaving the scene of the protest like concert-goers after an outdoor festival. A man named Michal walks with a few of his friends. He's wearing the orange and black ribbon of the demonstrators. He looks at the kids eating ice cream, the grandmothers sitting on benches, and says most people here are just unconscious.

MICHAL: (Foreign language spoken)

SHAPIRO: Only about 10 percent of the people who live here really understand what's happening, he says. When I ask whether that 10 percent can change the fate of Eastern Ukraine, he coolly says - it's always been this way. The minority decides the fate of the majority.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Donetsk. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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