Opposition lawmakers hurled eggs and smoke bombs inside Ukraine’s parliament on Tuesday as the chamber approved an agreement allowing the Russian Navy to extend its stay in a Ukrainian port until 2042.
Crowds of spectators and opponents scuffled outside the parliament building as deputies from newly elected President Viktor Yanukovich’s coalition approved a 25-year extension to the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s base in Crimea.
“Today will go down as a black page in the history of Ukraine and the Ukrainian parliament,” former premier Yulia Tymoshenko, now in opposition, told journalists inside the parliament. (The Globe & Mail)
“Parliament ratified this agreement on a treacherous path. We will change it as soon as we return to power,” she added. (CBC)
“Ukraine has begun to lose its independence,” she added. (New York Times)
The chamber filled with smoke as the smoke bombs were released and Speaker Volodymyr Litvyn took shelter under umbrellas provided by bodyguards as eggs rained down on him. Some protesting deputies unfurled Ukrainian flags across the benches. Others were seen throwing punches on the floor of the chamber, and covering their faces with handkerchiefs to protect themselves from the smoke.
The protests galvanized various opposition parties against Mr. Yanukovich for the first time since he was elected in February and they may yet prove a defining moment in the forming of a united opposition front.
They also highlighted the deep division in the ex-Soviet republic of 46 million. Mr. Yanukovich enjoys support mainly from Russian-speakers in the east and south, including Crimea, who lean more towards Moscow.
Ukrainian nationalists from the west and centre, led by Ms. Tymoshenko and former President Viktor Yuschenko, regard the base as a betrayal of national interests. They wanted to remove it when the existing lease runs out in 2017.
Deputies brawled and the chamber resounded to cries of “impeachment!”, “coup!”, and “betrayal” as passions ran high. (The Globe & Mail)
But, with the air still hazy from the smoke bombs, parliament ratified the lease extension by 236 votes – 10 more than the minimum required for it to pass – and then promptly adopted the 2010 state budget which is key for securing $12-billion (U.S.) in credit from the International Monetary Fund.
Parliament bypassed normal procedure and rushed through adoption of the budget without discussion because of the mayhem.
Mr. Yanukovich agreed the navy base deal with Russian leader Dmitry Mededev on April 21 in exchange for a 30 per cent cut in the price of Russian gas – a boon to Kiev’s struggling economy.
“There is no alternative to this decision – because ratification means a lower price for gas and a lower price for gas means the budget,” Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said. “The budget means agreement with the IMF [International Monetary Fund], the possibility of getting investments. It is a program of development for Ukraine in the future.” (The Globe & Mail)
Ms. Tymoshenko, speaking to a rally, said: “We have one slogan: Ukraine is not for sale. We must build a powerful system for the defence of Ukraine.” (The Globe & Mail)
Former parliament Speaker Arsenly Yatensyuk, who also ran for president, called for early parliamentary elections.
Mr. Yanukovich, speaking to journalists in Strasbourg where he attended a session of the Council of Europe, dismissed the disturbances, according to Interfax Ukraine news agency, saying: “Nothing unexpected took place in the Ukraine parliament.” (The Globe & Mail)
Mr. Yanukovich said the new deal added a “concrete and pragmatic dimension” to centuries of relations between Ukrainians and Russians. (CNN)
Besides addressing the lease on the naval base, Mr. Yanukovich took another step on Tuesday toward soothing tensions with Russia by disavowing his predecessor’s stance on the famine in the early 1930’s that killed millions of people in Ukraine.
Mr. Yuschenko, who was a strident critic of Moscow, had labeled the deaths a genocide against the Ukrainian people that was authorized by Stalin in an effort to weaken Ukraine and ensure that it would remain under Soviet authority. Russia has assailed that view, saying that people across the Soviet Union died in the famine, not only those in Ukraine.
In comments on Tuesday, Mr. Yanukovich said he did not believe that the famine was a genocide against the Ukrainian people.
“The famine occurred in Ukraine, in Russia, in Belarus, Kazakhstan – it was a consequence of the Stalinist totalitarian regime,” Mr. Yanukovich said. “But to recognize the famine as a fact of a genocide in relation to one or another nation, we consider that incorrect and unfair.” (New York Times)
The Kremlin has presented the base deal as a diplomatic coup and Russia’s lower house of parliament approved it with 410 of the 450 lawmakers voting for the deal under an hour after the Ukrainian parliament voted.
“The Black Sea fleet acts as a guarantor of security both in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea,” Russian Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said after the two votes. (The Globe & Mail)
The Russian fleet has been based in Sevastopol since the reign of Catherine the Great in the 18th century. But, under an accord after Ukraine gained independence following the break-up of the Soviet Union, the fleet would have had to leave in 2017.
Mr. Yushchenko, Mr. Yanukovich’s pro-Western predecessor who favoured Ukrainian membership of NATO, pushed hard when he was in office for the fleet to be withdrawn.
But Mr. Yanukovich wants to improve ties with Ukraine’s former Soviet master. He says the Black Sea fleet does not endanger Ukraine’s national interests and enhances European security.
Mr. Yanukovich’s opponents say he is acting against the constitution. But the constitution is ambiguous, containing two contradictory articles on foreign military bases in the country.
Nina Matviychuk, a 60-year-old pensioner, welcomed the move. “The Russian ships in Sevastopol are in a bad state and need repairing, building. It probably means more money for our factories. It will be work for us,” she said in Kiev. (The Globe & Mail)
Miroslav, a 48-year-old who did not want to give his surname, thought differently. “We Ukrainian patriots are against gas being reduced for 10 years and Crimea being given away for 25 years. I’d like the price of beer to come down, but so what?” (The Globe & Mail)
Another protester outside the parliament, Igor Derevyanko, accused Russia of “financing anti-Ukrainian projects.” He was quoted as saying, “This is a permanent threat to Ukraine’s territorial integrity because the Black Sea fleet is the outpost of the Russian state in Ukraine.” (BBC)
The Russian fleet in Sevastopol comprises 16,200 serviceman, a rocket cruiser, a large destroyer and about 40 other vessels.
Proponents point out that the Crimea was part of Russia until then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave it to Ukraine in the 1950s. The region retains a Russian-leading population.
On Monday, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visited Kiev, where he announced offers for wide range co-operation on aircraft manufacturing, shipbuilding and the generation of nuclear power.
“We are talking about creating a large holding which would bring together joint power generation, joint power station construction and the fuel cycle,” he was quoted as saying. He said the controversy over the base deal was “to be honest, unexpected.” (BBC)
The price Ukraine had asked was “beyond all reasonable limits,” he said, and the gas subsidies would cost Russia $40-45 billion over 10 years. But he added that the deal was “not just a question of money.” (BBC)
“Military co-operation, without a doubt, increases trust between two countries, gives us an opportunity to do work full of trust in the economic and social and political spheres,” he said. “This is in fact the main thing.” (BBC)