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April 26, 2010

Ukrainian Egg-Throwing Melee Against Russian Fleet Agreement

by Peter Fedynsky

Opposition lawmakers unfurl huge Ukrainian flag, voice anger at 25-year lease extension

An egg-throwing melee in the Ukrainian parliament, the Rada, accompanied ratification of a controversial agreement to extend the lease of Russia's Black Sea Fleet in the Crimean port city of Sevastopol for at least 25 years.

Chaos broke out on the floor of Ukraine's Rada as lawmakers opposed to the Black Sea Fleet agreement with Russia unleashed a volley of eggs at the speaker's platform.  Speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn protected himself with an umbrella.

Opposition members covered much of the floor with a huge Ukrainian flag and someone set off a smoke bomb.  Some deputies traded punches across the flag, and one was seen grabbing another around the neck in a tight hammer lock.

With opponents shouting in the background, Lytvyn said the Black Sea Agreement was ready for a vote.

The Rada's audio countdown timer signaled the vote to be over.  Lytvyn announced a majority of 236 lawmakers favored ratification in the 450-seat chamber.

The winning side shouted approval.  Its members welcome closer ties with Russia, saying the agreement is a good economic deal for Ukraine.  Detractors cried "shame."

The Ukrainian constitution allows former Soviet bases on its territory during an unspecified transition period.  But critics say the agreement goes far beyond any reasonable time frame and violates a constitutional ban on foreign bases in Ukraine.

The Black Sea Fleet agreement extends Russia's lease on the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol through the year 2042, with an option to extend another five years.  In exchange, Ukraine gets a 30 percent discount on Russian natural gas for the next 10 years.  Russia was to have left the port in 2017, more than a quarter century after the Soviet collapse.

In Russia, state television noted Ukrainian media did not halt their live coverage of the unfolding embarrassment.

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev said Ukrainian lawmakers ratified the agreement with what he called their "traditional elegance."

Mr. Medvedev says the Rada got together and staged a small concert complete with special effects.  But he expresses satisfaction with passage of the measure, because it shows that common sense and strategic interests prevailed over momentary emotions.

Independent Russian military analyst Alexander Golts told VOA many Russians fail to realize that Ukraine is fundamentally different from Russia.  He notes that a very significant segment of Ukrainian society opposes the fleet as a matter of principle.

Golts says Russian authorities are hostages to [Ukraine's pro-Russian] Regions Party and President Viktor Yanukovych.  He says the Kremlin must pray that Mr. Yanukovych and successors who agree with his approach will live forever or at least until 2042.

Presidents Yanukovych and Medvedev signed the fleet agreement last week in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv.

Golts says Ukrainian politicians can make additional demands against Moscow in exchange for continued pro-Russian policies.  He cites Belarus and Kyrgyzstan as countries that have pledged support for Russia in exchange for financial aid.

Nationalist lawmaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky made a similar point in the Russian Parliament, saying there is nothing to prevent the emergence of another Viktor Yushchenko. Ukraine's former leader insisted the Russian fleet leave in 2017 as initially agreed to.

Russian lawmakers ratified the agreement with 410 votes in favor, none opposed.