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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

In Kiev, Sharp Words as Parliament Opens

KIEV -- Lawmakers returned to the Ukrainian parliament on Tuesday for the new session's opening, which Speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn kicked off with sharp criticism of President Viktor Yushchenko's government.

"It seems we are doing everything in a new way, but most things are just like they were [during former President Leonid Kuchma's regime]," Lytvyn said.

He accused the government of manipulating statistics and complained of political instability, economic stagnation and the absence of any big foreign policy achievements.

The criticism added to the troubles piling up on Yushchenko, whose chief of staff, Oleksandr Zinchenko, resigned Saturday and then accused some of the country's top officials of corruption. Yushchenko, who came to power amid a wave of popular support, has seen his own popularity drop in recent months, partly due to rising prices and bickering within his coalition government.

Lytvyn, who heads his own political party and was a one-time chief of staff to Kuchma, has flirted with the idea of joining a grand coalition with Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko for March's parliamentary elections. But that coalition looks increasingly unlikely as the major figures openly spar with one another.

Yury Pavlenko, Ukraine's youth and sports minister, who was in parliament for the opening session, said that Lytvyn's speech was a harbinger of the fast-approaching campaign season.

"He started the campaign with big words," Pavlenko said.

The March elections are taking on added importance because of constitutional reforms due to take effect by the end of this year. The reforms will hand many presidential powers to parliament, which will be given the right to approve candidates for the prime minister's job as well as forother key positions, such as defense and foreign ministers.

The 450-member parliament has a lot on its plate, with more than 1,000 bills expected to come up during the session, including highly controversial World Trade Organization membership legislation. Lawmakers warned ahead of Tuesday's session that the discord that erupted into fistfights earlier this year had not dissipated.

Lytvyn has promised to bring up for a vote the remaining legislation the country needs to adopt to join the WTO, which Yushchenko has made a priority.

Ukraine is eager to win its place in the WTO before year's end -- and before Russia does. If Russia joins first, Moscow could impose a whole new set of difficult membership requirements on Ukraine.

The reform legislation, however, is deeply unpopular with the Communists.

Communist leader Petro Symonenko warned that his party would continue to fight the other WTO bills, which he said would hurt Ukrainian businesses.

"This session will be very strained," Lytvyn said on Ukrainian television.