Ukraine Leader Wants New Constitution, Referendum

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, seeking to overturn curbs on his powers, called on Thursday for a new constitution to be drawn up and put to the people.

Pro-presidential lawmaker Mykola Martynenko, (C) in brown jacket, and an unidentified Communist lawmaker, (L), fight in the parliament in Kiev, Thursday. Communist Party lawmakers exchanged blows with members of President Yushchenko's faction when they attempted to put up banners ahead of Yushchenko's address to lawmakers, criticizing the president for unfulfilled campaign promises. The banner reads 'Where are the steps toward people', referring to Yushchenko's presidential program slugged 'Ten steps toward people'. Martynenko, the head of Yushchenko's parliamentary faction, suffered a blow to the nose and had to receive medical help.

The pro-Western president has been vying for authority with parliament after ignoring a January 10 vote sacking the government. He says constitutional amendments in force since the New Year handing more powers to the assembly are a recipe for deadlock.

Yushchenko's allies trail in opinion polls in the run-up to a March 26 parliamentary election in the ex-Soviet country. The vote could produce a chamber keen to use new powers giving it more control over the choice of prime minister.

"I propose a plan to carry out real mass political reform -- create a constitutional commission ... with the aim of drafting a new version of the Ukrainian constitution," Yushchenko told parliament in his state of the nation address.

"The completed draft would be submitted to country-wide discussion ... and would then be put to a country-wide referendum."

Yushchenko, looking tense, vowed never to "take a single step" against the constitution, but said the recent changes "amount to only partial reform of the system of government."

It was now unclear, he said, how government could function without a majority in parliament. Existing laws took no account of the changes.

"Unless these laws are changed, the government system cannot function in the new conditions. I believe reforms must go deeper and not simply involve a redistribution of powers...," he said.

"Limiting reforms in this way threatens to produce constant parliament-government crises as we have already seen."

PATH TO PROSPERITY

In his hour-long address, the president also pledged to invigorate the economy, now in a slowdown, raise living standards and promote cultural values and national identity.

"We must complete the path to economic prosperity over five to seven years -- 10 at the most," he said.

Yushchenko was propelled to power just over a year ago on the back of "Orange Revolution" mass protests against electoral fraud in November 2004.

His first year in office had sought to focus on a drive to emerge from Russia's shadow, move closer to the West and eventually join the European Union. But his team was riven by divisions into two camps, each accusing the other of corruption.

The split culminated in the dismissal of his radical, charismatic prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, last September, generating disillusion among the revolution's supporters.

Tymoshenko, once Yushchenko's closest ally, joined the president's longstanding rivals in voting to sack the government on grounds that an agreement increasing the price of imported Russian gas betrayed the national interest.

The constitutional changes were pushed through parliament in late 2004 as part of proposals by international mediators to end the standoff over the contested poll. Yushchenko initially backed the amendments, but turned against them as he encountered difficulty pushing his program through parliament.

Source: Reuters

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