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Kiev protests buoyed by western Ukraine volunteers

Published: Monday, Jan. 27, 2014 1:15 p.m. CDT

LVIV, Ukraine — Brimming with determination and enthusiasm, young Ukrainian designers stayed up very late one night to work on a pet project — not a chic gallery opening but making battle armor for protesters.

Marianna Kvyatkovska and others used hunks of plastic drainage pipes to craft shin and elbow pads to protect protesters against police truncheons in the capital, Kiev, where their friends have been camped out in anti-government demonstrations for nearly two months. The rallies had been largely peaceful but violent clashes with police broke out last week in which at least three protesters died.

While Kiev is the epicenter of the demonstrations calling for President Viktor Yanukovych to step down, Lviv is a buzzing entrepreneurial engine of support for the protesters.

This western city 480 kilometers (300 miles) from Kiev near the border with Poland is the heartland of Ukrainian nationalism, where an overwhelming majority of the people resent Russia's former occupation and current strong influence. Support for the pro-Russian Yanukovych is almost non-existent and residents in this city of 730,000 want their future clearly tied to Europe.

"This is a country that is killing the middle class, of which I consider myself a part," said Andrey Kit, owner of an agricultural business.

Employers in Lviv, known for its thriving small-business community, have tacitly encouraged their employees to take part in the protests. Even Kvyatkovska, who makes a living as a tapestry restorer in a local museum, said despite working in a government institution, her boss had been in favor of her going.

Lviv's tilt toward Europe has long roots. Under the names of Lwow and Lemberg, it was variously part of Poland and the Austrian Empire and is home to striking Belle Epoque buildings.

Although the economy of western Ukraine is poorer than the Russian-speaking east, home to Ukraine's major industries, Lviv's people regard themselves as more cultured than easterners. The city is especially proud of its burgeoning small-business sector, from chic cafes to respected tech companies.

"Western Ukraine is avant-garde," Kvyatkovska said.

Residents of Lviv have been holding demonstrations throughout the crisis that began in November when Yanukovych shelved an agreement to deepen ties with the European Union and signed a bailout deal with Russia instead. This month, hundreds stormed the governor's office and forced him to sign a resignation letter. Over the weekend, the regional parliament declared a parallel government, a move that has little practical value but considerable emotional resonance.

Yet many believe the protests in Lviv, long a bastion of pro-European sentiment, are less significant than the fight raging in Kiev, where opinions are still divided.

"It's more important to be there than here, because there's nothing to fight for here," said Kit, as he headed to the capital over the weekend. "Kiev is the front line."

With that view, locals and businesses are making extensive efforts to support the Kiev demonstrations. Company employees swap shifts so that they can attend the protests, while others sew warm clothes or prepare food for the demonstrators. One of the city's most popular cafes sent a van to Kiev to provide coffee for protesters braving the fierce winter cold.

People traveling to the capital gather at a cafe downtown that serves as a distribution site for donations and a bus depot for demonstrators.

"Every day the demand for things people can use for defense — helmets, shin pads, elbow pads — is growing," said organizer Mikhail Senko. "People fear more and more for their safety."

He said the site sent 537 protesters in buses to Kiev on Saturday and collected hundreds of donations.

Kvyatkovska and her friends handed their homemade shin-and-elbow pads to someone boarding the bus. They had spent the day bending the pipes into the right shape before sewing on recycled felt and adjustable straps to make the gear more comfortable. As a final flourish, Kvyatkovska penned the slogan of the protest movement — "Glory to Ukraine!" — on the bright orange plastic.

She had had taken part in protests before. But as events in the capital turned violent and deadly, she decided she could no longer leave her 9-year-old son in order to take part and figured the defensive armor was a good way to stay involved.

Marta Grybalska, who works at a local IT company, said about 100 employees started a Facebook group to coordinate contributions to the protests. She said the group also functioned as a safety mechanism, so people would know who was in Kiev if anything went wrong. But it also helped people swap shifts and juggle work assignments so they could go to the capital.

"In our kind of work, there's no need to sit around the office," she said. "So work must be done on time and it must be done well, but people are needed to fight (in Kiev)."

Senko said he had coordinated with dozens of business owners who have been a backbone of support for the protesters.

"It's not some kind of PR campaign," he said. "They just know that they're the first ones to have something taken from them, whether that's land or property or their homes."

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