Ukraine Passes Post-Soviet Charter

KIEV -- Ukraine's parliament on Friday passed the country's first post-Soviet constitution, overcoming months of resistance from Communist lawmakers.

"This landmark event will take its place in Ukraine's history," said President Leonid Kuchma.

The parliament passed the constitution by a 315-36 vote with 12 abstentions after a dramatic 23-hour session lasting from Thursday throughout the night, finally ending Friday morning.

The Communists, who form the largest faction in parliament, opposed the proposed constitution. They resisted provisions that allowed private ownership of land and factories, and demanded that the Russian language have equal status with Ukrainian.

The Communists and their allies command about 170 votes in the 450-seat parliament, and the constitution needed a two-thirds majority of 301 votes to pass.

In an effort to break three months of deadlock, Kuchma on Wednesday called a referendum for Sept. 25 on the draft approved in March by the Constitutional Commission, disregarding scores of changes made by parliament since then.

That earlier version, even more strongly opposed by hardliners, would have given the president stronger powers, provided for a bicameral legislature and limited autonomy in Crimea.

In the face of Kuchma's challenge, many Communists and their supporters gave in Friday and voted for the revised text.

The constitution's final text allows unlimited private property and makes Ukrainian the country's only official language. It also calls for a unicameral legislature to be elected every four years.

Addressing parliament after the vote, Kuchma praised lawmakers for compromising and said he would cancel the referendum. "We proved today that we shall overcome everything if we work together," he said. "Starting today, there will be no doubts about the Ukrainian parliament's efficiency."

The constitution allows for only a temporary foreign military presence in Ukraine, which could aggravate talks between Ukraine and Russia over the coveted Black Sea Fleet, now based on the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea. But the charter does not give a time limit for "temporary."

Lawmakers from across the political spectrum welcomed the constitution's passage. "This is truly a grandiose event in our history, placing us among the civilized countries of the world and strengthening reforms in Ukraine," said Ivan Zayats, a leader of the influential nationalist movement Rukh.

"We hope that approving this document will ... transform our rich country," said Communist legislator Yevhen Marmazov.

Reaction on Kiev's streets was similarly buoyant. "Passing the constitution is a hugely significant event. We're now like all normal countries of the world," said Valentin Zinchenko, 46, an employee at the Kiev Research Institute.

Ukraine, which became independent with the 1991 Soviet collapse, remained the only former Soviet republic without a new national charter. The previous, Soviet-era constitution has been amended hundreds of times.

June 28 was declared a state holiday in honor of the constitution's passage.