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PUTIN LAUDS PROGRESS ON CREATION OF UNIFIED ECONOMIC ZONE. President Vladimir Putin said in Moscow on 16 April that he is pleased with the progress made to date on a draft agreement to create a "unified economic zone" encompassing Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Russia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 February 2003), RTR, ORT, and reported on 16 April. During a meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Khristenko, who heads the working group on the unification of trade and tariff legislation, Putin said that, "despite a number of setbacks," the group's work is moving forward and the four countries should be able to enter the World Trade Organization as "a single economic space." The other members of the working group -- Ukrainian First Deputy Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, Kazakh Deputy Prime Minister Karim Maksimov, and Belarusian Deputy Prime Minister Andrey Kabyakou -- also attended the meeting with Putin. Analysts believe that the proposal to combine the four countries -- with a total population of 219 million people -- is the most ambitious Kremlin initiative since the collapse of the Soviet Union and could lead to the creation of a new regional entity. VY

UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENT APPROVES GOVERNMENT PROGRAM... The Verkhovna Rada on 17 April approved an action plan submitted by Viktor Yanukovych's cabinet, Interfax reported. The plan was supported by 335 deputies, including the Socialist Party and Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc caucuses and 55 lawmakers from Our Ukraine. Communist Party lawmakers voted against the plan. The Ukrainian Constitution stipulates that the Verkhovna Rada may not consider ousting a cabinet for one year following the approval of its program. JM

...BUT REJECTS BILL ON PROPORTIONAL SYSTEM. Also on 17 April, parliament twice failed to approve a bill providing for parliamentary elections under a fully proportional system, Interfax reported. In the first vote, the bill was supported by 217 deputies from Our Ukraine (93), the Communist Party (60), the Socialist Party (19), the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc (17), the Agrarian Party (14), the Popular Democratic Party (five), and other deputies. In the second vote, 213 deputies backed the bill. The Communist Party, Socialist Party, and Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc caucuses demanded a recess in the session and a meeting with Premier Yanukovych. Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko said the opposition wants to hear Yanukovych's explanation regarding "the promises he made to some caucuses" before the voting on the government program. JM

UKRAINIAN SPEAKER CRITICIZES RECENT CRIMINAL CASES AGAINST MEDIA. Verkhovna Rada speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn on 16 April expressed disapproval over the announcement of criminal cases launched recently against a number of media outlets for allegedly defaming the president and obstructing his activities (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 April 2003), Interfax reported. "Suing journalists is like complaining into a mirror," he said. RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported on 11 April that prosecutors instigated criminal investigations at the regional publications "Informatsiynyy byuleten" (Kremenchuk), "Cherkaska pravda" (Cherkasy), "Rivnenskyy dialoh" (Rivne), "Pozytsiya" (Sumy), and "Antena" (Cherkasy). Asked by UNIAN whether the RFE/RL report is true, Polina Bashkina, spokeswoman for the prosecutor-general, said, "Unfortunately, this topic is not [appropriate] for comment." JM