Embattled Ukraine Leader's Speech Preceded By Legislators' Brawl

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine's president pleaded with the country's legislature Thursday to drop internal battles and unite - a familiar appeal from the embattled leader, who risks losing influence in next month's election.

Ukraine's President Viktor Yushchenko, center, is seen during his annual address to lawmakers in the parliament in Kiev, Thursday, Feb. 9, 2006.

Opposition Communist party legislators, however, exchanged blows with members of President Viktor Yushchenko's faction before his annual address when they attempted to put up banners criticizing the president for unfulfilled campaign promises.

"Enough arguing: There is enough work for everybody," Viktor Yushchenko said in his annual address before the 450-member legislature, which just weeks ago voted to fire his cabinet.

The bitter accusations that followed last month's vote, which Yushchenko ignored, prompted Speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn to advise Yushchenko to put off his address, which initially had been planned for the anniversary of his Jan. 23 inauguration.

The ill will persisted Thursday, with many legislators in a partisan mood before the March 26 election, which could herald a power shift and will determine whether it pursues the path of integration with the West set by Yushchenko. Opinion polls suggest Yushchenko's party is poised to finish a distant second to the party led by his pro-Russian rival, Viktor Yanukovych.

The president said his top priority will be improving the quality of life for Ukraine's 47 million people. He pledged to reform the decaying housing projects that dot Ukrainian cities. The apartments have suffered particularly during this winter's cold spell, as heating and electricity systems repeatedly broke down.

"Today it is fashionable to be Ukrainian but that's not enough," Yushchenko said, referring to the worldwide attention Ukraine received after last year's so-called Orange Revolution.

"Today, we must do everything so that it will also be interesting and profitable to be Ukrainian."

He pledged to continue government measures, including plans to hold a referendum to alter constitutional changes that came into force this year, setting off heckling. Those changes greatly increase parliamentary powers at the expense of the presidency, allowing the parliamentary majority to name the prime minister and some cabinet members.

Yushchenko said, however, he would not attempt to force any changes in the constitution before the elections.

"I haven't done and won't do anything that would breach it," he said, as legislators muttered in opposition.

A nervous-looking Yushchenko read most of his speech without looking up. There was little applause.

Opposition legislator Nestor Shufrych criticized the speech as "a sad fairy tale."

"He forgot to tell us when everything he said will be accomplished," Shufrych said.

"It seemed to me that he didn't even believe what he said."

Yushchenko reaffirmed his government's commitment to its pro-western path but added it is also important to have good relations with neighbouring states, based on Ukraine's national interests.

In a move likely to anger Russia, however, he reaffirmed his support for a united Ukrainian Orthodox church that would operate independently of the Moscow Patriarchate.

Yushchenko also said he believes Ukraine, sandwiched between Russia and the EU, has a key role to play "in the integration process of Central and Eastern Europe."

Source: AP