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    Yushchenko calls for new constitution as part of political reform

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    KIEV, February 9 (RIA Novosti) - Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko told parliament Thursday that a new constitution should be drafted and put to a national vote as part of a full-scale political reform.

    "A new version of the constitution should be drafted by a constitutional commission and subjected to a nationwide referendum," Yushchenko said in his state of the nation address.

    The president is unhappy with the constitutional amendments in effect since January 1, which have dramatically expanded parliament's powers at the expense of the presidency, but he assured the MPs that he would not force any changes before the March 26 legislative election.

    The pro-Western leader, seeking European Union and NATO membership for Ukraine, acknowledged the importance of developing partnerships with Russia and other eastern neighbors as long as national interests were served. But he said he wanted the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to operate independently of the Moscow Patriarchate, something the Russian Church strongly disapproves of.

    Yushchenko said his government's economic and social policies had produced impressive results in 2005, citing a 20% year-on-year increase in real incomes and a 30% increase in welfare benefits. He said the country's budget revenues had grown by 54% over the year and the reserves of the Central Bank had doubled to 10 billion hryvnias ($2 billion).

    The president said the executive branch would continue working to improve the quality of life of its 47 million citizens. He pledged to focus particularly on the renovation of the dilapidated housing infrastructure, following repeated breakdowns of heating and electricity facilities during this winter's cold spells.

    Yushchenko, swept into power a little more than a year ago on the back of Orange Revolution protests against electoral fraud, said the legislature and the executive branch should put their differences behind and unite. He has been at odds with the assembly since he ignored its no-confidence vote for the cabinet a few weeks ago.

    According to public opinion polls, the president's Our Ukraine party has a far lower chance of success in next month's race than the party led by Viktor Yanukovych, Yushchenko's rival in the 2004 election.

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