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Protests as Ukraine approves Russian base extension

KIEV (Reuters) - 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 supporters 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,” opposition leader and former premier Yulia Tymoshenko told journalists inside parliament.

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.

Protesting deputies unfurled huge Ukrainian flags across the benches.

Ukrainian nationalists, led by 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 -- and then promptly adopted the 2010 state budget which is key for securing $12 billion in loans from the International Monetary Fund.

Parliament bypassed normal procedure and adopted the budget without discussion because of the mayhem.

Yanukovich agreed the navy base deal with Russian leader Dmitry Medvedev on April 21 in exchange for a 30 percent cut in the price of Russian gas to Ukraine -- 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,” Ukraine’s Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said.

“The budget means agreement with the IMF, the possibility of getting investments. It is a program of development for Ukraine in the future.”

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 in the Mediterranean Sea,” Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said after the two votes.

“The agreement offers us serious opportunities to promote further military and military-technical cooperation between the armed forces of Ukraine and Russia.”

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 favored Ukrainian membership of NATO, pushed hard when he was in office for the fleet to be withdrawn.

But Yanukovich 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.

Additional reporting by Yuri Kulikov and Pavel Polityuk, editing by Michael Stott and Peter Millership