By Alastair Macdonald
KIEV, Feb 4 (Reuters) - A political gulf of historic dimensions divides Ukraine but down the hill from where parliament commenced a new session of mutual loathing on Tuesday, the gap on the ground narrows - to Molotov cocktail range.
At the foot of Hrushevsky Street, 20 metres of no man's land, black ice on cobblestone, divides the riot police front line, immobile in black helmets behind tall steel shields, from militants manning barricades built of sacks packed with snow.
Round the clock, for over two months, scenes from a mediaeval siege are played out in frozen tableau, battles lines marked by smoke and licks of flame from makeshift braziers.
On one side, about 30 policemen in hulking black body armour from head to toe, stand wielding riot staves, barring the way uphill toward an array of government buildings and parliament. Immediately behind them, several dozen reserves and other police officers chat idly, warming themselves by fires, chopping wood to burn, listening to a plangent radio.
In front of them, close enough to talk to without shouting - though no one does - a motley crew of radical activists, many carrying clubs and wearing ski masks under green Soviet army helmets, watch from parapets behind walls of plastic sacks and burned out buses packed with tyres. Black ruin is everywhere and the air reeks of the charred mayhem left by petrol bombs.
However this crisis will end, whether by a use of force, which the president's allies say he rejects, or by some form of compromise, perhaps driven by international mediation to avert civil war, it will take physical form on Hrushevsky Street.
At the top of the hill, in the Stalin-era building of the Verkhovna Rada, or Supreme Council, noisy lawmakers are deadlocked over opposition demands for constitutional change to weaken President Viktor Yanukovich, over attempts to force him out and over the trade pact with the European Union which the president turned down in November in favour of aid from Russia.
Beyond Kiev, grand and ancient Slavic capital of the east, the conflict over Ukraine, literally the "Borderland" Russians see between them and "Europe", the confrontation in which at least six people have died has set Moscow against the West.
And ground zero is this area the size of a football field a minute's walk from the debating chamber, by a now blackened, portico gateway to the park around Dynamo Kiev soccer stadium.
On the eastern side, forces of a state bailed out by Vladimir Putin's Kremlin with a $15-billion package of loans and cheaper gas, and of Yanukovich, whose power lies with the wealthy barons of Ukraine's industrial, Russian-speaking east.
To the west, their backs to the main protest camp around Maidan - Independence Square - are dozens of people, mostly men, most young, many from Ukrainian-speaking western regions, all convinced Yanukovich is a corrupt pawn of Moscow.
For many Ukrainians who support the silent, grim-faced men of the riot squad - the Berkut, or Eagles - these radicals are heirs of "fascist" nationalists who fought Soviet rule and sided with the Nazis who occupied Ukraine in World War Two.
Oleksy, a senior lieutenant in the police, was spending his umpteenth day holding the line outside parliament. Standing by a water cannon, he said he was curious to know what it was like in the opposing camp: "You know, we just hope we can sort this out," he said, smiling.
Walk for a minute away from the armoured standoff outside the Art Museum with its classical columns and stone lions on guard, and the Ukrainian capital seems to be going about its business almost as normal. Office workers head home to the metro station through checkpoints manned by police or protesters. But even among "civilians", opinion is divided.
"This is OK," said Viktor, a smartly dressed teacher in his 40s as he walked past a watch-tower that militants have erected near Khreshchatyk metro station. Briefcase in hand, praising the protesters, he said: "We're defending our rights."
He was unfazed as a grubby frontline radical strolled past swinging what looked like a modern take on the mediaeval mace.
But others in the city are less happy. "It's a disgrace," snorted another commuter negotiating a militant checkpoint.
The area directly behind the opposition frontline has become something of a tourist attraction.
Dozens of locals take turns standing on the ice-bound ramparts, taking pictures of the police, snapping "selfies" on their mobile phones and chatting.
Right up front, Viktor and Dima, both 28 and from different towns in the west, are in grimmer mood. They have little faith in parliament.
"Negotiations? They've been negotiating for two months," snorted Dima as he warmed his hands on a fire in an oil drum.
"We're here until Yanukovich goes, and all the Communists."
A home-made catapult, a siege engine from another age, sits nearby, ready to hurl rocks at the police. From an overlooking balcony, a resident has hung a sign: "People Live Here!"
Standing under a poster declaring solidarity from Poland, Viktor, wearing motorbike body protectors, said he had no plan to go back to his job in an electrical store "until victory".
Whether either side in this deeply divided country can hope for such a clear-cut conclusion any time soon, seems unlikely.
Just yards away, retired engineer Vasily Fyodorovich was out for a sightseeing stroll to the barricades with his wife.
"It's a shame, messing up the city like this," he said. The opposition, he added, included "fascists" with help from Poland - the historic, Roman Catholic enemy of Orthodox Russians.
He would be happy for new elections as a solution - and would vote again for Yanukovich. Above all, he said, echoing the thoughts of many Ukrainians, he wanted the conflict to end:
"These are just children here. On both sides," he said. "We just want to live in peace, like people in other countries."
As the light faded over no man's land, gloom swallowed up a giant, smoke-blackened advertising banner covering the facade of the 19th-century apartment block caught in the middle of the battlefield. Promoting mobile phones in the languages of the teams Ukraine hosted in the European soccer championships of 2012, its cheery, sporting slogan reads: "Forward, Ukraine!"
Stuck in stalemate, up the hill in parliament, and down on the street, most Ukrainians can only hope that becomes reality. (Editing by Ralph Boulton)
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