June 21, 2019 / 2:16 PM / 25 days ago

'New blood' in Ukraine parliament will ease reform path: Zelenskiy party chief

KIEV (Reuters) - Ukraine can pass reforms to make politicians more accountable and lift a ban on the sale of farmland after lawmakers hostile to change are tossed out in a July snap election, the head of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s party told Reuters.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is seen in his office at the Presidential Administration building in Kiev, Ukraine June 19, 2019. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

Zelenskiy scored a landslide presidential election victory in April and the ex-comedian holds a commanding opinion poll lead going into next month’s parliamentary election, though his Servant of the People party may fall short of a majority.

He had no prior political experience but Zelenskiy’s anti-establishment message and unorthodox style - relying heavily on social media and jokes to cut through to voters - has resonated with an electorate fed up with corruption and politics as usual.

Dmytro Razumkov, the head of Zelenskiy’s party, said parliament has blocked the president’s reform initiatives, including bills to strip lawmakers of immunity from prosecution and another on officials illegally enriching themselves.

He thinks that will change once Zelenskiy’s party wins its first seats and parliament, now filled with lawmakers loyal to Zelenskiy’s predecessor Petro Poroshenko, is overhauled.

Razumkov said his party was open to forming a coalition with other parties but declined to name them.

“I think that the time has come for a transfusion in the Verkhovna Rada and the emergence of new blood, young blood in the rather old-fashioned building of the Verkhovna Rada,” Razumkov said in an interview at his party headquarters.

NEW IMF AGREEMENT

Razumkov said Zelenskiy’s party would try to persuade parliament to lift a moratorium on the sale of farmland that has been in force since 2001. This step is backed by foreign donors and businesses who see huge investment potential.

Ukraine’s fertile land already makes it one of the world’s top grain exporters but some fear that lifting the moratorium means small landholders might be bullied to sell their land on the cheap to big businesses or foreigners.

Razumkov said Zelenskiy’s team would create the right legal framework to make sure that does not happen, but did not give a timeline for when the moratorium could be lifted.

A priority for any new government will be Kiev’s relationship with the International Monetary Fund, whose cash-for-reforms aid programs supported Ukraine through conflict with Russian-backed forces and an economic crash since 2014.

Zelenskiy plans to negotiate a new IMF deal after the election to replace an existing $3.9 billion standby agreement.

“Today, talking about some red lines, I think, is premature,” said Razumkov, when asked what red lines in the talks the new government would have.

A potential sticking point is the IMF’s demand for Ukraine to deregulate household heating tariffs and bring them up to market levels. The policy has sparked criticism from lawmakers and citizens in the past who say it hurts living standards.

“If we are talking about raising or lowering the price of gas and the requirements of the IMF, the IMF does not formulate this position,” Razumkov said, saying the Fund wanted a balanced budget. “And you can balance the budget in many ways.”

“The IMF has recently begun to take a rather tough position, because this organization is fed up when it is constantly being deceived,” he said.

“I can cite many examples when certain agreements were reached between Ukraine and the IMF, and then we did not fulfill our commitments,” he said, referring to the current authorities and parliament.

Editing by Mark Heinrich

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