Protests as Ukraine approves Russia navy base extension

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The Independent Online

Opposition politicians hurled eggs and smoke bombs inside Ukraine's parliament today as the chamber approved an agreement allowing the Russian Navy to extend its stay in a Ukrainian port until 2042.

Thousands of opposition demonstrators rallied 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.

The chamber of the parliament filled with smoke as smoke bombs were released and Speaker Volodymyr Litvyn took shelter under his umbrella as eggs rained down on him.

Ukrainian nationalists, led by former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and former President Viktor Yushchenko, regard the base as a betrayal of Ukraine's national interests. They wanted to remove it when the existing lease runs out in 2017.

But parliament ratified the lease extension by 236 votes - 10 more than the minimum required for it to pass.

Yanukovich agreed the navy base deal with Russian leader Dmitry Medvedev on April 21 in exchange for a 30 per cent cut in the price of Russian gas to Ukraine - a boon to Kiev's struggling economy.

In a parallel discussion this morning, the Russian Duma was expected to rubber-stamp the deal, which is being touted by the Kremlin as a diplomatic coup.

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.

Yushchenko, Yanukovich's pro-Western predecessor who favoured Ukrainian membership of Nato, pushed hard when he was in office for the fleet to be withdrawn on time in 2017.

But the newly elected Yanukovich says he wants to significantly improve ties with Ukraine's former Soviet master. He says the Black Sea fleet in Crimea does not endanger Ukraine's national interests and enhances European security.

Yanukovich's opponents say he is acting against the constitution. But the constitution is ambiguous, containing two contradictory articles on the stationing of foreign military bases in the country.

"If society today turns a blind eye to the Kharkiv agreement, it is possible that it will be the biggest loss to our sovereignty and independence," Yushchenko said at the weekend, referring to the meeting in the city of Kharkiv where Yanukovich and Medvedev agreed the deal.

The Russian fleet in Sevastopol comprises about 16,200 servicemen, a rocket cruiser, a large destroyer and about 40 other vessels including submarines, landing craft, small destroyers and support ships.

To the embarrassment of Yushchenko, the fleet sent warships to support Russian military action against Ukraine's then-ally, the former Soviet republic of Georgia during Russia's brief war there in August 2008.

Opponents of the Black Sea deal say that, by hosting the Black Sea fleet, Ukraine could be dragged into future Moscow conflicts with other powers.

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 strongly Russian-leaning population.