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Russian Farm Land Reform Still Delicate Issue - 2002-05-11

In the 10 years since the collapse of communism much has changed in Russia. There is a new religious freedom, people can travel and do many things formerly forbidden to them. But one holdover from the communist past remains: the prohibition on the private ownership of farmland. It is an issue that stirs passion and controversy and one the Russia's lower house of parliament, the Duma, is to take up in the weeks to come.

If it were not for the Russian flag flying atop the barn, the green pastures dotted with fat beef cattle could pass for any ranch on the American prairie. But this is Andrei Davidov's farm in the Kaluga region 200-kilometers southwest of Moscow. "I love my farm. I like the country. I like to look to my pastures, to my animals. .... I have good luck every day. I like it," he says.

Mr. Davidov beams with pride as he brags to visitors of the cattle raising techniques he uses, techniques he adopted after a visit to farms in Canada and the United States. "I use North American technology. It is a very good system. Cows and calves go to pasture, eat all they want. I use really good methods for my farming, good quality pastures, good quality air. It is very clean. [I have] healthy animals," he says. "They are happy and I'm happy with them. They can pass on to me the profits."

Andrei Davidov took up farming 10 years ago after a career in the military and a stint as a publisher. He took the proceeds from the sale of his publishing firm and began to buy land here in Kaluga from shareholders of an old collective farm. He now has over 600-hectares of rolling pastureland and some 150-head of cattle. He uses the Internet to order supplies, like his electric fencing, which he gets from the United States. Several small cottages surrounded by garden plots and apple trees are where Andrei, his wife Marina and some of their farm workers live.

Andrei Davidov says he would like his farm to serve as a model for others in Russia. I have a dream when all Russia will be like my farm. We will be happy," he says.

Mr. Davidov is clearly proud of his farm and he says he is making a profit. But there is a problem. Even though Mr. Davidov bought this land, he does not technically own it. He can farm it, but he cannot use it as collateral for a bank loan. And that, he says, is holding him back from expanding his operation.

Private ownership of property went out with the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. All farms were state-owned collectives. Farm workers were paid by the state and were told what to grow and how much. With the fall of communism, that began to change. Collective farms were turned into "cooperatives" and divided up among farm workers, who were given property shares.

The new Russian constitution of 1993 permits private ownership but does not provide the mechanisms to implement it. Last year the Duma passed a law allowing private ownership of commercial land. But when the debate moved to agricultural land, fist-fights broke out among lawmakers, and the parliamentary session ended with a number of legislators walking out vowing they would rather die than allow the motherland to be sold off to the highest bidder.

Viktor Pleskachevsky is chairman of the Duma Property Committee, responsible for spearheading legislation on land reform. "Many people perceive a square meter of land as a square meter of the motherland," he says. "This affects the whole issue. ... In Russia for 80 years, for several generations people were not used to property. Russia has a different notion of property. ... Reform is to change the existing order."

Mr. Pleskachevsky says such land reform is vital to develop and modernize Russia's agriculture and its economy. But opponents, including communist lawmakers and others, say foreigners and wealthy business tycoons will buy up farmland and squeeze out the average Russian. There are currently seven legislative proposals on land reform before the Duma and the upcoming debate is again likely to be heated.

Anatoly Suyarko learned his trade in a Soviet agricultural institute and was well versed in running an old-style collective farm. He is now the director of a farm cooperative in Kaluga, down the road from Andrei Davidov's private farm. He says the changes of the past decade have been difficult. "The state used to take care of farmers," he says. "Then, they threw us out into deep water. We had to change first of all ourselves our attitude to work. We had to realize there would be no help, that we had to rely only on ourselves. There was something good about the old times. But now we are given freedom. It is hard. We have not really stepped away from the old system. We have not left socialism and we have not really entered capitalism."

Anatoly Suyarko's cooperative farms 1,400 hectares. In contrast to the prosperous look of the privately run Davidov farm, the cooperative looks shabby with rundown barns, thin and frail-looking cattle. Mr. Suyarko and his colleagues would like to modernize, but like Andrei Davidov, they are having a hard time getting loans from the bank.

As things now stand, both so-called private farmers and cooperatives depend on the support of local officials. Valery Krutikov is the head of administration in this area of Kaluga district. He strongly supports land reform because he says the welfare of the farmers cannot be left to any one individual. "The situation cannot be tied to a good or bad governor, good or bad president, general secretary or czar," he says. "The goal is to create a legal base, rules of the game by which everybody will play from the president down to the common worker in the village."

Russia has more than 400-million hectares of farmland, that is close to 24-percent of the country's total landmass. But for Russians, the issue of land goes straight to the heart.

That, of course, is why the members of the Duma are finding it so difficult to reform the land code. They must do it in a way that gives farmers an incentive to make improvements on their land, but they must also find a way to persuade other Russians that their motherland remains theirs.