Ukraine parliament adopts 'historic' land reform bill

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (R) attended the historic session of parliament

Ukraine's parliament on Tuesday lifted a long-standing ban on the sale of farmland, a crucial and controversial piece of legislation needed to unlock support from the International Monetary Fund.

In the early hours of Tuesday, 259 lawmakers -- sporting masks and gloves to guard against coronavirus infection -- backed the bill as President Volodymyr Zelensky applauded them and flashed a victory sign.

The president has to sign off on the bill for it to become law.

On Monday Zelensky had urged MPs to lift the ban, warning that the ex-Soviet country could default due to the economic shocks of the coronavirus pandemic.

"It is vital to support our economy today," he told lawmakers before the vote.

The bill has sparked huge controversy and multiple protests in one of Europe's poorest countries.

While the land reform has been welcomed by investors, critics fear that opening up the land market will lead to a takeover by foreign owners or giant holdings of land which, since the Soviet era, have only been available for rent.

"This is undeniably a historic event," Andriy Yermak, chief of Zelensky's staff, said on Facebook.

According to the latest version of the legislation, Ukrainians will be able to buy or sell farmland from July 2021.

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.

The former Soviet republic, whose stalling economy has been propped up by Western aid for years, is home to one-third of the world's fertile black soil rich in nutrients.

To receive an $8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund Ukraine also has to pass a banking reform bill.

The key piece of legislation, already adopted in a first reading on Monday, is seen by many as aimed at preventing Igor Kolomoisky, Ukraine's top tycoon with ties to Zelensky, from regaining control of Privatbank, the country's largest lender.