KIEV, June 6 â€“ Parliament of Crimea, Ukraineâ€™s autonomous republic, voted Tuesday to declare the region â€śa NATO-free territory,â€ť a move that sharply escalates tensions between the region and the central government in Kiev.
The development underscores the worst relations between Kiev and Simferopol since 1993-1994, when the region, dominated by ethnic Russians, had been seeking greater autonomy or even secession from Ukraine.
The 61-0 vote in 100-seat Crimean Parliament directly challenges the Ukrainian constitution, which authorizes only the central government in Kiev to decide on the countryâ€™s military and defense issues.
President Viktor Yushchenko quickly dismissed the Crimean vote on Tuesday and said that Ukraine will continue to cooperate with NATO in line with all earlier signed agreements.
â€śThis doesnâ€™t change those agreements that regulate relations between Ukraine and NATO,â€ť Yushchenko said at a press conference. â€śWe have a plan of cooperation with NATO, just like Russia and other countries, that anticipates holding military exercises.â€ť
Russia has been persistently seeking to prevent Ukraineâ€™s closer cooperation with NATO, which Moscow sees as a military threat. A Russian lawmaker and other Russian citizens, in violation of Ukrainian law, have last week joined anti-NATO protests in Crimea.
Kiev seeks integration with NATO, perhaps as soon as in 2008, as a shield to protect itself from possible territorial claims from Russia as relations between the two neighbors have been worsening.
The vote in the Crimean Parliament was vehemently backed by pro-Russian parties, which dominate the local legislature, seeking to derail a planned NATO-Ukraine military exercise due in July.
The Crimean Parliament majority, led by a bloc loyal to former Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, controls 74 seats in the 100-seat legislature. Yanukovychâ€™s party controls 44 seats.
The vote also puts mounting pressure on Kiev as three-pro-Western parties have been holding difficult talks to form the new government in Ukraine following the March 26 general election.
The three parties, Our Ukraine, the Socialist Party and the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc, control 243 seats in 450-seat Ukrainian Parliament, which places Yanukovychâ€™s group, the Regions Party, in opposition.
The Regions Party, which dominates local legislatures in several eastern and southern regions of Ukraine, has been challenging Kiev over the past four weeks on issues like Russian language and NATO. The moves have been apparently aimed at forcing Yushchenkoâ€™s Our Ukraine to accept a coalition with the Regions party, analysts said.
Henadiy Moskal, a former police general and now the presidential representative in Crimea, also dismissed the anti-NATO vote in Crimean Parliament. He stressed that the vote clearly violates the Ukrainian constitution and is illegal.
â€śDeclaring the region NATO-free territory is like declaring Crimea a sex-free area,â€ť Moskal said. (tl/ez)