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KIEV, July 13 (Reuters) - The Ukrainian parliament gave preliminary approval on Thursday to a proposed pension reform - a much-debated legislative change that is required to unlock loans under a $17.5 billion International Monetary Fund bailout programme.
Overcoming opposition in parliament to the pension changes has proved one of the toughest battles for Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman's Western-backed government.
"This will allow us to do something that nobody has done before: reform the pension system in the interests of Ukrainian pensioners. This is the moment of truth," Groysman said before the vote.
The reform is designed to keep a widening pensions deficit in check, but it has faced stiff opposition from populist forces in parliament who say savings can be found without the planned partial increases to the retirement age.
Currently Ukraine, whose 12 million pensioners number almost as many as the working population, spends more on pensions as a percentage of gross domestic product than almost any other country.
The bill, which has to go through another round of voting in parliament to become law, was backed by 282 lawmakers, comfortably over the 226 required to pass.
Groysman said the final vote on the reform would be held after the summer recess.
Overhauling the pension system and lifting a ban on agricultural land sales are among laws Ukraine must pass to receive further cash under the IMF programme. That programme has been repeatedly delayed by stop-start reform efforts since it was agreed in 2015.
Last Thursday, the central bank said it expected to receive $1.5 billion less this year from the Fund because of slow progress of the laws' through parliament.
Reporting by Pavel Polityuk; Writing by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Larry King