KIEV, February 19 (RIA Novosti) - Ukraine's opposition party submitted a draft bill on Thursday demanding the foreign minister resign over threats to expel Russia's envoy, which strained relations with Moscow just weeks after a gas row.
Volodymyr Ohryzko warned Ambassador Viktor Chernomyrdin on Tuesday that he could be expelled over recent alleged "undiplomatic comments." Moscow described the incident as another unfriendly move by Kiev aimed at damaging bilateral relations.
"We will push for Ohryzko's resignation," Anna Herman, a leader of the Party of Regions and a member of the Supreme Rada, told a news briefing.
Herman said "it is no time to quarrel with Russia" and urged joint efforts to tackle the financial crisis that has hit both countries hard.
It is not clear what comments outraged the foreign minister, but Chernomyrdin is known to have criticized Ukrainian authorities for dragging out the recent gas talks with Russia which led to gas supplies transited to Europe through Ukraine being cut for nearly two weeks.
In a January 18 interview with Russia's Vesti TV channel, in particular, he described the situation with gas transits as "nonsense" and "buffoonery," and said that "everything proceeds from Ukraine's leadership."
"Either they are unaware of what they are doing, or they are aware but doing it on purpose," he said.
The dispute has highlighted the growing rift within the leadership, with the president supporting the foreign minister and the prime minister distancing herself from him.
"It is unacceptable for an ambassador to say things that can be incorrectly taken by the nation, power or people as a whole," President Viktor Yushchenko said on Thursday. "Volodymyr Ohryzko acted within the boundaries of international law standing up for what is related to the honor and status of our country."
Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko was reported on Wednesday as saying Ohryzko, the president's man in the government, had not agreed the move with her.
Tymoshenko and Yushchenko, former pro-Western allies, have become embroiled in political backbiting that intensified further when Yushchenko accused the premier of betraying Ukraine's interests in the January 19 gas deal with Moscow which led to the resumption in Russian gas supplies to Europe and Kiev.
Another Party of Regions member, Oleksandr Yefremov, said the Supreme Rada could vote on Ohryzko's resignation before the minister delivers a report to the legislature on March 3.
In a statement in response to the expulsion threat on Wednesday, Russia's Foreign Ministry said: "It is amazing how consistent the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry has been in its attempts to damage Russian-Ukrainian cooperation."
Relations between the two former Soviet neighbors have been strained over a host of issues, including energy prices, Russia's August conflict with Georgia and Ukraine's NATO ambitions under its pro-Western leaders.
Ukraine has banned several Russian politicians from entering the country over comments about the largely Russian-speaking Crimea Peninsula, a Russian region granted to Ukraine by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.