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 government 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,” former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, now in opposition, told reporters inside parliament.
The chamber filled with smoke as the smoke bombs were released. Speaker Volodymyr Litvyn took shelter under umbrellas provided by bodyguards as eggs rained down on him. Protesting deputies unfurled Ukrainian flags across the benches.
The protests galvanized various opposition parties against Yanukovich for the first time since he was elected in February, and they may yet prove a defining moment in the formation of an united opposition front.
They also highlighted the deep division in the former Soviet republic of 46 million. Yanukovich enjoys support mainly from Russian speakers in the east and south, including Crimea, who lean more toward Moscow.
Ukrainian nationalists from the west and center, led by Tymoshenko and former President Viktor Yushchenko, regard the Crimea base as a betrayal of national interests. They wanted to remove it when the existing lease ran out in 2017.
Deputies brawled and the chamber resounded to cries of “impeachment!,” “coup!,” “betrayal!” as passions ran high.
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 in credit from the International Monetary Fund.
Parliament, in almost siege conditions, bypassed normal procedure and rammed through adoption of the budget without discussion because of the mayhem.
Yanukovich agreed the navy base deal with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on April 21 in exchange for a 30 percent 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,” Ukrainian 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.”
Tymoshenko, speaking to a rally, said: “We have one slogan: Ukraine is not for sale. We must build a powerful system for the defense of Ukraine.”
Former parliament speaker Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who also ran for president, called for early parliamentary elections.
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 Ukrainian parliament.”
In a separate interview with Reuters in Strasbourg, Yanukovich accused Tymoshenko of herself being prepared to extend the Russian navy’s stay if she had won the election.
He said the gas deal she had negotiated with the Russians in January 2009 had not brought in a penny. “I have secured a return of $40 billion on gas purchases,” Yanukovich said.
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.
Medvedev and Yanukovich later congratulated each other on the joint ratification by telephone, and discussed Medvedev’s trip to Kiev on May 17-18.
Speaking in Norway, Medvedev said he was content with the outcome in Ukraine. “It demonstrates the triumph of sober reason. Ukraine’s strategic interests prevailed over momentary emotions displayed in the form of various sound effects and other means of demonstrating one’s convictions,” he said.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, speaking to a government meeting in the Russian Black sea resort of Sochi, described protesters as “opposition hooligans.”
The Russian fleet has been based in Sevastopol since the reign of Catherine the Great in the 18th century. But, under a deal 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, pushed hard when he was in office for the fleet to be withdrawn.
The Russian fleet in Sevastopol comprises 16,200 servicemen, a rocket cruiser, a large destroyer and about 40 other vessels.
The Crimea was part of Russia until Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave it to Kremlin-ruled Ukraine in the 1950s. The region retains a Russian-leaning population.
(Additional reporting by Yuri Kulikov and Pavel Polityuk in Kiev and Gilbert Reilhac in Strasbourg)
Editing by Michael Stott and Mark Heinrich