Ukraine's newly elected parliament on Thursday approved two presidential allies for the posts of prime minister and parliament speaker, but the vote was nearly overshadowed by a violent brawl between government supporters and opposition lawmakers.
The Party of Regions led by President Viktor Yanukovych and its allies secured a majority in the Verkhovna Rada following an October election condemned as unfair by the West. But three opposition parties made a strong showing and vowed to challenge Yanukovych's grip on power.
Some took that literally. For the second day of the new parliament's work, fists flew as opposition lawmakers chanted "Shame! Shame!" and "No to defectors!"
Shortly after parliament began its work Thursday morning, opposition lawmakers swarmed the parliament's podium and a fight erupted with pro-government legislators. Lawmakers wrestled with each other and some deputies were knocked over in the melee. Opposition lawmakers were angry over the fact that some of their opponents continued the controversial practice of voting in place of their absent colleagues, despite a recent ban.
Yanukovych ally Volodymyr Rybak, a 66-year-old former mayor of the eastern city of Donetsk, interrupted his speech in frustration.
"Esteemed deputies, let us calm down," he said as the fight continued and he was widely ignored.
After a short break was announced and the fight ended, Rybak was elected parliament speaker.
Later in the day, parliament voted to approve acting Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, a staunch Yanukovych ally, as the country's premier. Azarov, 64, who has served as Yanukovych's prime minister for nearly three years, will have to manage an economy heading into a recession, a shaky national currency and negotiations with the International Monetary Fund on securing yet another bailout loan for Ukraine.
The opposition refused to take part in both votes and its members stormed out of the hall in protest, leaving Yanukovych to address a half-empty parliament in a video statement.
The chaotic parliament scenes did little to assuage the West's concern over the state of democracy in this ex-Soviet republic, whose leaders are under fire for the imprisonment of former premier Yulia Tymoshenko deemed politically motivated by the West.
The European Union put on hold a key cooperation agreement with Ukraine over Tymoshenko's jailing. On Thursday, the European Parliament adopted a resolution in which it reiterated that "the country must prove its commitment to genuine democracy before an agreement can be signed."