Supporters of jailed Ukrainian opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko disrupted the start of a new parliamentary season in Kiev on Tuesday, raucously chanting Freedom for Yulia! throughout a keynote speech by President Viktor Yanukovich.
About 10 deputies belonging to her Batkivshchyna party leapt to their feet, unfurling a banner bearing Tymoshenko's portrait, and began a drumbeat chant even as Yanukovich took his place at the rostrum to deliver the traditional speech.
They kept up a noisy barrage for a full 30 minutes while Yanukovich, raising his voice to make his pre-prepared address, exhorted opposition parties to end street protests and prepare normally for an October parliamentary election.
Parliament has become an established focal point for rowdy protest in Ukraine since Yanukovich came to power in the ex-Soviet republic two years ago.
In May 2010, opposition deputies sowed chaos when they hurled smoke bombs in protest against a deal extending the stay of Russia's Black Sea fleet in Ukraine.
But a direct protest against a Ukrainian president while he was making a traditional address to parliament was extraordinary and Tuesday's action suggested stormy times ahead in the run-up to the October poll.
Tymoshenko, 51, a charismatic twice-serving former prime minister, was jailed last October for seven years on a charge of abuse of office linked to a 2009 gas supply deal with Russia which she brokered while in power.
The Yanukovich leadership says the deal left the country with an exorbitant price for gas which is now a millstone on the Ukrainian economy. The United States and the European Union support the view of the political opposition that her trial was an example of selective justice and politically-motivated.
Yanukovich, an old adversary of Tymoshenko who only narrowly beat her for the presidency in February 2010 after a vitriolic campaign, has repeatedly turned a deaf ear to Western calls for her to be released.
Law enforcement bodies have instead opened a string of new criminal cases against her.
FEARS FOR HEALTH
Her supporters, led by daughter Yevgenia who took her case to Washington last week, have expressed fears for Tymoshenko's health and say she is in constant pain from a recurring back problem. She is being held in a prison camp some 500 km (312 miles) east of Kiev.
After meeting U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Germany on Saturday, Yanukovich signalled he might be ready to allow a group of foreign doctors to carry out an independent medical examination of Tymoshenko.
Yanukovich made no direct response to the pro-Tymoshenko protesters on Tuesday but stuck to his pre-written script despite their chanting.
I want to appeal to opposition fractions: come back to parliament. It is not possible to save our country (by rallying) on public squares, he said.
Opinion polls show sagging popularity for Yanukovich's Regions Party while Tymoshenko's Batkivshchyna has recovered some lost ground - boosted in large part by a sympathy vote because of her imprisonment.
Other political opposition parties say they will join Batkivshchyna in agreeing a common candidate to take on the Regions Party in single-mandate constituencies that will account for half of the seats contested in the October election.
Tymoshenko herself is a polarising figure who made many enemies with erratic policies when she was in power, and it remains to be seen whether all opposition parties will find common ground by next October.
(Writing By Richard Balmforth)