Brawl erupts in Ukraine parliament over controversial land reform

Kiev (AFP) –


A brawl broke out in Ukraine's parliament and hundreds of people protested outside the legislature on Thursday as passions heated up over a controversial land reform bill.

Around 15 lawmakers from President Volodymyr Zelensky's party and their opponents from the party of ex-prime minister Yuliya Tymoshenko pushed each other near the rostrum as the legislature struggled to conduct a second and final reading of the bill.

"Selling Ukrainian land is a crime!" pro-Russian lawmaker Vadym Rabinovych, who did not take part in the altercation, shouted during the stormy parliament session.

Ruslan Stefanchuk, deputy speaker of the chamber, called on the deputies to maintain order.

"Parliament is a place for discussions, to prove your point in a discussion, and not through monkey jumps," he said.

After the lawmakers calmed down the parliament began debating the legislation, but the reading might take several days.

A bill that could open up the sale of the country's fertile farmland from October 2020 won initial backing from the parliament dominated by Zelensky's Servant of the People party.

But its progress has stalled as opposition MPs have submitted thousands of amendments.

Outside the parliament building and the president's office, hundreds of activists and farmers also staged a protest.

Once known as the "bread basket of Europe," the former Soviet country has around 32.5 million hectares of arable land, almost twice as much as France.

While the reform is expected to foster economic growth, some critics fear it will allow rich Ukrainians to create giant holdings of land that they are currently renting, while small-holders will be shut out.

Others fear the plan will allow foreigners to buy farmland at a later stage.

The government initially planned to allow foreigners to buy farmland from 2024, but Zelensky, under pressure from opponents, has promised a referendum on the issue.

In further concessions, he offered to reduce the maximum amount of land that one person can buy to 10,000 hectares from 200,000.