Fists fly at Ukraine parliament

2010-04-27 19:54

Kiev - Lawmakers brawled, threw eggs at each other and set off smoke bombs in Ukraine's parliament on Tuesday as the legislature erupted into chaos over a vote allowing the Russian navy to keep using a port on the Black Sea.

The Kremlin's influence has surged in Ukraine since the election victory of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, infuriating Ukrainians who resent Moscow's influence, and inflaming the violent passions that plague the politics of the former Soviet republic.

The controversy over the home port for the Russian Black Sea Fleet has been one of the most emotionally fraught consequences of the breakup of the Soviet Union. Russia found one of its major fleets headquartered in a foreign country's port - Sevastopol, on the Crimean peninsula that extends from mainland Ukraine into the Black Sea. Sevastopol is about 320km from the nearest Russian territory.

Ukrainian nationalists who resented Moscow's long dominance of their land regarded the Russian fleet's presence as tantamount to military occupation. Former pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko had vowed that the fleet's lease of the port would not be renewed when it expired in 2017.

Strategic importance

Yanukovych and Russian leader Dmitry Medvedev agreed last week that the lease would be extended for 25 years past that expiration.

The fleet also has facilities at Russia's Novorossiisk and the port there apparently could have been expanded if the Sevastopol lease fell through. But the extension saves Russia the expense and effort of port expansion and may offer time to reassess the value of the fleet, whose strategic importance has declined and many of whose ships reportedly won't be seaworthy within 5-10 years.

Black Sea Fleet ships played a role in Russia's 2008 war against Georgia, but the fleet's global usefulness is impeded by its ships having to pass through the narrow and crowded Bosporus, controlled by Nato member Turkey.

Opposition parliament members threw eggs at speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn as he opened the session in the Verkhovna Rada, forcing him to preside while shielded by a black umbrella held by an aide. Two smoke bombs were set off, and deputies shouted their opinions about the squeal of a smoke alarm.

Some parliament members scuffled and the opposition Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defence bloc said one of its legislators was hospitalised with a concussion after fighting with members of Yanukovych's party.

The extension passed with 236 votes in the 450-member parliament, but opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko vowed it wouldn't last.

'A treacherous path'

"Today is a black page in the history of Ukraine's independence. Sevastopol is the first step. The next one will be the Crimea," she told reporters. "Parliament ratified this agreement on a treacherous path. We will change it as soon as we return to power," she said.

That was the concern of some of the few Russian parliament members who abstained from voting when the measure passed in the State Duma 410-0.

"There's no certainty that the agreement will be fulfilled by the Ukrainian side," said Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the nationalist Liberal Democratic party. "In 10 years there may be another Yushchenko in power."

In return for the lease extension, Russia agreed to significant discounts on natural gas exports to Ukraine. High gas costs are one of the factors driving Ukraine's economy to the precipice amid the global economic downturn, and the reduced prices are likely to stave off some economic troubles, thereby bolstering Yanukovych's popularity.

Russia claims the steep discount of roughly 33% won't seriously undermine its own economy, of which gas export is a critical element. But Zhirinovsky complained in the State Duma session that the discount was unnecessary.

In Kiev, analysts say the naval base deal will trigger a deeper split in Ukrainian society between the Russian-speaking east and south and the western regions where nationalist sentiments run strong.

"They (the new authorities) did what they wanted. Without any democratic discussion, not even for show. Half of the country is against the deal. Ukraine faces a split deeper then ever," said Kiev-based political analyst Vadym Karasiov.

Yanukovych was in Strasbourg on Tuesday, addressing the Council of Europe on a range of issues. There, more evidence of his pro-Russian streak appeared when he proclaimed that the Stalinist famine of 1930s that killed millions should not be considered a genocide against Ukrainians because it targeted its victims indiscriminately. Moscow has long pressed the viewpoint, which Yanukovych's predecessor Yushchenko had fought against.