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.