KIEV, May 30 â€“ Pro-Russian groups staged spectacular protests throughout Ukraine after a U.S. Navy ship had docked at a port in Crimea to deliver supplies for a planned NATO-Ukraine naval exercise later this year.
The protests, led by the Progressive Socialist Party, an ultra-leftist and vehemently pro-Russian group, started Monday in the port of Feodosia aiming to block the unloading of the ship.
But Tuesday the protests spread to Donetsk, where a group of party activists had picketed President Viktor Yushchenko during his visit to the region to introduce the new governor.
At a press conference in Kiev, the partyâ€™s leader, Natalia Vitrenko, said â€śforeign troops had invaded Ukraineâ€ť and called on lawmakers to start the impeachment of Yushchenko.
The Regions Party, the biggest group in Ukraineâ€™s Parliament, later issued its own statements denouncing the exercise. The Communist Party, another pro-Russian group, also issued a statement.
Although Vitrenko is known for her anti-NATO stance, this is the first time her small party has managed to stage massive protests in several regions at the same time.
Also, the fact that the protests were immediately supported by much stronger groups, such as the Regions Party and the Communist Party, shows the action may have been coordinated.
â€śThis is a provocation,â€ť Yushchenko said at press conference in Donetsk. â€śI am confident that this is a purely political action. I see no other reasons for it.â€ť
The protests underscore challenges that the central government in Kiev will face while dealing with Crimea, Ukraineâ€™s autonomous region, where all named parties had created a strong majority.
Lawmakers loyal to Vitrenko, the Regions, the Communists and two other pro-Russian groups control 74 seats in 100-seat Crimean Parliament, which is expected to vote later this week to approve a new Crimean prime minister.
Russia has been seriously worried about Ukraineâ€™s increasing cooperation with NATO, an alliance that it views as a military threat.
Analysts said Russia may have been secretly financing some political groups in Crimea last year to boost anti-NATO sentiment in the region where Russiaâ€™s Black Sea Naval Fleet is based.
Viktor Chernomyrdin, the Russian Ambassador to Ukraine, said Tuesday that Ukraineâ€™s growing cooperation with NATO was one of the key factors that had been spoiling Russian-Ukrainian relations.
But he added that Russia had nothing to do with the developing anti-NATO protests in Ukraine.
The NATO-Ukraine exercise, Sea Breeze-2006, has been scheduled last year, but Yushchenko, due to his split with former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko in September 2005, had failed to win Parliamentâ€™s approval for it.
As three pro-Western parties have been making progress in talks over the ruling coalition, the Defense Ministry said Tuesday it had expected Parliament to shortly approve the exercise. (tl/ez)