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Ukraine moves toward constitutional reform

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko gestures as he speaks to lawmakers during a parliament session in Kiev, Ukraine, Thursday, July 16, 2015. Ukraine's parliament, on Thursday sent to the Constitutional Court draft amendments to the country's Constitution concerning decentralization. A total of 288 lawmakers, 62 more than the minimum required voted in favor of the decision. The Constitution is added by a provision that "the peculiarities of local self-government in certain areas of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions are defined by a separate law." (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine’s parliament on Thursday made the first step toward devolving more powers to separatist-controlled areas in eastern Ukraine by sending the bill on constitutional reform for review at the country’s highest court.

The conflict between Russia-backed rebels and Ukrainian government troops has killed more than 6,400 people since fighting there began last April. The rebels in the east at first called for federalization that would give local authorities sizeable powers. Later, they held a referendum and declared independence, which has not been recognized by anyone, not even Russia.

An armistice signed in February calls for a political resolution in the region including constitutional reform that will give all Ukrainian regions — and the east specifically — more powers.

Presenting the bill on Thursday, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko insisted that the changes he is proposing would not turn Ukraine into a federation. He said that along with giving more powers to local authorities throughout the country, the bill allows broader autonomy in the areas the government is currently not controlling.

“Ukraine will stay a unitary state,” Poroshenko told the parliament.

Poroshenko stopped short of explaining the particulars of the self-governance in the east, but the details are expected to be released when the bill goes to parliament

Lawmakers on Thursday voted 228-58 for the bill, and it now goes to the country’s Constitution Court. Once approved, it will go back to the parliament to be voted on again, and later to be signed into law by the president.

Lawmakers were debating the bill in the presence of U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, who is in Kiev on a visit and was watching the vote from the public gallery.

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