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Ukraine opposition blocks parliament from voting on Azarov (update, video)

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Dec. 13, 2012, 9:45 a.m. | Politics — by Reuters

Deputies of the opposition fight with deputies of the majority during the opening of the newly elected Ukrainian parliament in Kiev on December 12, 2012. A fight erupted in the chamber between opposition MPs and two deputies whom they accused of defecting to the pro-government camp. Several lawmakers from the opposition nationalist Svoboda group chased two men they called "turncoats" -- a father and a son -- to prevent them from taking the oath. AFP PHOTO//SERGEI SUPINSKY
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Ukraine's revitalised opposition, led by far-right nationalists, wrecked plans by the ruling coalition to ease Mykola Azarov into a second term as prime minister on Wednesday at a raucous session of the new parliament, marked by brawls and cat-calls.

Deputies from three main opposition parties chanted "Hanba! Hanba!" (Shame!) when Azarov's name was invoked and encircled the speaker's rostrum, preventing a scheduled vote taking place on his re-nomination by President Viktor Yanukovich.

Blows were exchanged when two elected deputies - a father and son - were prevented from taking the oath. Opposition deputies physically ejected them from the chamber, accusing them of defecting to the ruling coalition, led by Yanukovich's Party of the Regions.

The opposition protests effectively paralysed the session and parties left the chamber, agreeing to reconvene on Thursday.

The vote on Azarov's nomination will be an early test of the support that Yanukovich commands in the new chamber. Yanukovich, on a visit to India, had earlier said he hoped Azarov would be approved in office on Wednesday.

The pro-business Party of the Regions and their allies enjoyed a strong majority in the last parliament, which allowed them to ram through changes to the electoral law and a law on use of the Russian language that sparked street protests.

But though it is still the biggest single party, it lost seats in the Oct. 28 election.

Most analysts said they believed horse-trading would ensure enough support from independents and others to secure the required 226 or more seats. But the new opposition line-up, whose leaders have ruled out any coalition with the Regions, quickly showed their teeth.

Deputies from the three main opposition parties surrounded the speaker's rostrum, effectively blocking activation of the electronic system which would allow deputies to vote on Azarov's nomination and the appointment of parliamentary officials.

After a prolonged stand-off, both sides went home agreeing to resume business on Thursday, according to the Regions Party. Separately, the government put off a meeting scheduled for Thursday morning.

Deputies from the Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) bloc, whose leader is jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, appeared in the chamber wearing black sweaters bearing her portrait and stickers calling for political prisoners to be freed.

When the speaker formally announced that Azarov and his government were present, the chamber echoed to opposition cries of "Hanba! Hanba!" (Shame!)

HEAVYWEIGHT OPPOSITION

New opposition figures who took the oath included world heavyweight boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko, who heads the UDAR (Punch) party, and Oleh Tyahnybok, leader of the Svoboda far-right nationalists who did surprisingly well in the poll.

Former economy minister Arseny Yatsenyuk headed the Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) bloc in Tymoshenko's absence.

Svoboda deputies appeared to spearhead most of Wednesday's protest. Outside parliament, they cut down part of a perimeter fence with a chainsaw and broke down a door in what they called a protest against parliament's alienation from the people.

Azarov is a staid, 64-year-old conservative who has been prime minister since Yanukovich was elected in Feb. 2010.

The Regions won 185 seats on Oct. 28 - slightly fewer than in the previous election.

But on Wednesday, boosted by deputies elected as independents, they registered a 210-strong faction.

This means that, together with 33 Communists that the party expects to vote with it, the Regions will have a comfortable majority in the 450-seat chamber.

By nominating Azarov for a second term as prime minister, Yanukovich opted to keep a predictable loyalist by his side rather than back riskier alternatives.

The export-oriented economy might be facing a bruising year next year with markets shrinking, while Yanukovich himself is gearing up to run for a second term as president in 2015.

An early challenge for Azarov will be to negotiate a new bailout programme with the International Monetary Fund to follow a $15 billion package suspended in early 2011. An IMF mission is due to visit Kiev in January to discuss a new standby arrangement.

Opposition parties have welded together an action programme in which they have threatened Yanukovich with impeachment and vowed to work to free Tymoshenko, who was jailed more than a year ago for alleged abuse of office while prime minister.

She has denied wrongdoing and says she is the victim of a political vendetta by Yanukovich. But there are also rivalries among the leaders of the opposition parties, which could endanger any unity of purpose in the long run.

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