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Poroshenko lifts vote objections

Published 06/04/2015

Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, pictured with David Cameron, has met a parliamentary commission that is drafting amendments to Ukraine's main law
Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, pictured with David Cameron, has met a parliamentary commission that is drafting amendments to Ukraine's main law

Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko has publicly lifted his objections to a referendum that could give more powers to the restive regions engulfed in more than a year of warfare.

The conflict between Russia-backed rebels and government troops in eastern Ukraine has claimed more than 6,000 lives.

When it began, protesters in the east demanded a vote on giving their regions more autonomy. Such calls were rejected by the Ukrainian government at the time.

But Mr Poroshenko has met a parliamentary commission that is drafting amendments to the country's main law.

He said in a televised meeting that if the commission decides a vote is necessary, he would not stand in the way of a referendum.

"I'm ready to launch a referendum on the issue of state governance if you decide it is necessary," he said.

Ukraine's eastern industrial heartland was the support base for Kremlin-friendly president Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted in February last year after months of protests.

Several months into the fighting, however, pro-Russia rebels said they no longer wanted just autonomy, but rather an independent state.

Mr Poroshenko insisted that he is still opposed the idea of federalisation, which Russia has advocated, but is in favour of decentralising power to the regions.

He specified decision-making on security, defence and foreign policy would remain in the hands of the central government.

Mr Poroshenko also added that he still does not support making Russian a second official language and said everyone should "remember it as the Lord's Prayer: Ukrainian has been and will be our only state language".

Russia-backed separatists have baulked at the idea of a referendum as offering too little.

Senior rebel official Andrei Purgin said none of their representatives were invited to sit on the constitutional commission, "which already says a lot".

"Everything that Kiev does shows that they have to decide to find agreement but dictate their terms to us, which contradicts the Minsk accords," Mr Purgin said.

He said Poroshenko's statement "does not mean anything" because there are no details of the referendum, if it happens at all.

Ukraine's prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk dismissed suggestions of direct talks with the rebels.

"When we talk about our dialogue with the east, we mean a dialogue with legitimately elected representatives of the east of the country, not Russian gangsters and terrorists," he said.

Mr Yatsenyuk said he looks forward to a local election in the rebel-occupied areas that, he said, both Russia and the rebels had committed to in Minsk.

Moscow sided with the rebels, calling on Kiev to include them in deliberations on constitutional reform.

Speaking at a televised news conference, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said that reform should go ahead "only with the approval and agreement of Luhansk and Donetsk", the two biggest cities under separatist control.

Mr Purgin said Poroshenko's insistence on the official language shows that "he doesn't listen to the voice of the east: we speak Russian here".

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