If American politics have a proclivity for ugliness, at least congressional floor debates haven't stooped to this level: smashed eggs and smoke bombs. That's what filled the Ukrainian parliament on Tuesday, as brawling lawmakers debated an agreement to extend Russia's lease on a Black Sea naval base in Ukraine.
In the end, the ayes had it: Ukrainian legislators narrowly approved the deal hatched by the country's new pro-Moscow president, Viktor Yanukovych. The old agreement required Russian ships to leave the base in 2017. The new deal allows them to stay until 2042. In return, Russia promises what amounts to a 30 percent discount on soaring oil prices.
The deal may seem straightforward, but the brawl in parliament revealed the ire of Ukrainian nationalists who worry that the former Soviet republic is slipping back under control of Russia by entering into ongoing partnerships. Opposition lawmakers made that clear by unfurling a banner reading: "We will not allow Ukraine to be sold. No to treason."
That was one of the milder displays of the day. The more raucous opposition leaders resorted to pelting eggs at the parliament's speaker, Volodymyr Lytvyn. He remained undeterred and carried on the debate while a pair of aides shielded him with black umbrellas. Fights broke out on the floor, with one lawmaker suffering a concussion. Other lawmakers ignited at least two smoke bombs, filling the room with choking fumes. Still undeterred, the speaker called for a vote, and legislators voted while holding handkerchiefs over their faces.
Outside, thousands of protesters gathered, and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko called the agreement "a black page in the history of Ukraine."
A new page in Ukraine's history began in February with President Yanukovych's election. After gaining independence in 1991, Ukrainians strained toward an increasingly democratic government, culminating in the country's so-called "Orange Revolution" in 2004 and 2005. That revolution followed the first election of Yanukovych, a pro-Kremlin leader. Massive protests ensued, and voters charged electoral fraud, corruption, and intimidation, leading to Yanukovych's ouster and the installment of a pro-Western leader.
Five years later the disgraced politician returned under new circumstances: a bleak economy that left Ukrainians desperate for a new direction that could bring relief. They elected Yanukovych, who promised closer ties with Russia, a country eager to reassert its power on the international scene. The president made good on that promise by forging the deal that allows Russia to keep its ships in the Ukrainian port.
If Ukrainians weren't surprised at this week's agreement, opposition leaders were smoldering. They warn that a deepening alliance with Russia could lead the nation back to old problems: tighter Soviet control that could eventually leave even Yanukovych with egg on his face.