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Ukraine opposition says to prevent Russia fleet deal

KIEV (Reuters) - Ukraine’s political opposition on Saturday sought to rally people against a decision by President Viktor Yanukovich to allow the Russian navy to stay in Ukraine’s Crimea until 2042.

Yanukovich, in a trade-off with Moscow for securing cheaper gas, agreed last week to extend the lease of Russia’s Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol by 25 years beyond 2017 -- a move which drew charges from the opposition that Ukraine’s sovereignty was being compromised.

“Next Tuesday parliament will start the process of ratifying this unacceptable agreement for Ukraine,” former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko -- Yanukovich’s old election rival -- told a crowd of about 3,000 people near the parliament building.

“This ratification must meet with a clear and systematic rebuff,” she declared.

The ex-Soviet republic received a 30 percent cut in the price of its huge supplies of natural gas from Russia in exchange for the concession on the Black Sea fleet.

The Russian fleet was based in the Black Sea throughout Soviet times, but under a post-Ukrainian independence agreement, would have had to leave in 2017.

Ukraine badly needs a discount on its gas from Russia to balance its books and put its finances in order to qualify for a new $12 billion credit program from the International Monetary Fund.

The Black Sea fleet decision will be debated next week in parliament and could be ratified by a simple majority of 226 votes in the 450-seat parliament, though the opposition has threatened to block access to the speaking rostrum.

Viktor Yushchenko, Ukraine’s former pro-western president who pushed hard for the fleet to be withdrawn on time in 2017 when he was in office, Friday said the decision amounted to “a military occupation.”

Referring to the Kharkiv meeting on April 21 when Yanukovich signed the agreement with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, Yushchenko said: “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.”

Editing by Richard Balmforth and Sonya Hepinstall