Opposition's NATO Protests Paralyze Ukrainian Parliament

KIEV -- Opposition lawmakers blocked the Ukrainian parliament's work on Friday, protesting the government's latest efforts to seek NATO membership for the ex-Soviet republic.

Foreign Minister Volodymyr Ohryzko traveled to Brussels on Friday and handed NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer a formal request for Ukraine to join NATO's Membership Action Plan -- a crucial step on the road to joining the alliance.

NATO membership is a highly controversial issue in Ukraine, where opinion polls show that over half of the country opposes it. Pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko, however, has declared joining NATO a priority.

The statement, signed by Yushchenko, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and parliament Speaker Arseniy Yatsenyuk asked that Ukraine's bid for the Membership Action Plan be considered at a NATO meeting in Romania in April.

While Yushchenko and Tymoshenko have pledged to let Ukrainians decide on NATO membership in a referendum, they said that their Friday request does not contradict the promise since it is neither binding nor final.

But the Russia-friendly opposition Party of the Regions -- the largest faction in the 450-seat Verkhovna Rada -- said the move was inappropriate, and lawmakers angrily swarmed the parliament hall's main podium, halting the chamber's work.

"The powers-that-be ignored the people's will and made a decision on an issue that should be made only by the Ukrainian people following a public discussion," Olena Lukash, a senior member of the Party of the Regions, said in a statement.

Ukraine's NATO bid also faces strong opposition from Russia, which has been angered by NATO's eastward expansion and deployments close to its borders and argues that the alliance is a Cold War relic that should be replaced by other security arrangements.