World News

Ukraine's Yanukovich moves to strengthen powers

KIEV (Reuters) - Allies of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich sought on Friday to push through changes to the constitution that could significantly boost his political powers in the ex-Soviet republic.

Parliament launched a debate on a proposal by Yanukovich’s Regions Party that would allow for a referendum to wipe out 2004 amendments to the constitution that placed curbs on presidential powers.

Political commentators said allies of Yanukovich, who was elected last February after a bitter political campaign against former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, sought particularly to boost presidential authority over the government.

At the moment, the president can propose candidates only for foreign and defense ministers -- and even they have to be accepted by parliament.

If a referendum led to the curbs being lifted, commentators said Yanukovich would effectively acquire powers to name his own government.

The present limits on presidential powers were imposed in 2004 when the pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko came to power after the “Orange Revolution” street demonstrations and partly contributed to his downfall.

Yushchenko’s five years in power were marked by constant confrontation with parliament and with Tymoshenko, his own prime minister, and he crashed to a humiliating first-round defeat when he sought re-election earlier this year.

A vote in favor of a referendum would be an ideal birthday gift for Yanukovich who turned 60 on Friday.

The debate was later postponed to the weekend when parliament was due to hold exceptional sessions to clear outstanding work before the summer recess.

Since he came to power with the financial backing of key oligarchs, Yanukovich has gradually tightened his grip in the country, appointed close allies to key positions in the power structure and tilted foreign policy back toward Ukraine’s old Soviet master, Russia.

He said last month that the limits on the power of the presidency had produced a crisis of authority and he urged a change in the constitution.

The SBU state security service said separately a former top official of Ukraine’s state energy holding Naftogaz, who was also a Tymoshenko ally, had been detained in a criminal probe.

Ihor Didenko, former first deputy head of Naftogaz, was being investigated for embezzlement and abuse of office, a SBU spokesman told Reuters.

Tymoshenko’s political bloc BYuT said the move against Didenko was part of a campaign of repression against her and her allies by the Yanukovich camp.

Reporting by Natalya Zinets; Writing by Richard Balmforth; Editing by Maria Golovnina