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Russia: Legislation Fails To Protect Nation's Farmers, Part 2

With the Kremlin now backing approval of a new land code, Russia may be coming closer to adopting long-awaited land reform legislation. In this second of a two-part feature on land reform in Russia, RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini looks at how the absence of definitive federal agrarian legislation has failed to protect Russia's private farmers from widespread corruption among local officials.

Moscow, 9 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Supporters of the adoption of a federal land code say the legal vacuum now plaguing the question of land ownership has put many of Russia's private farmers at risk of bankruptcy.

Vladimir Bashmachnikov, the head of AKKOR -- an association uniting nearly two-thirds of Russia's 260,000 private farmers -- says poor legislation is to blame for rampant abuse of the country's farmland by corrupt regional bureaucrats.

He says that what is needed is "a strict legal framework to regulate the black market developing in these places." With no legal protection, he says the country's farmers are a vulnerable target for local officials looking to make an easy profit by jacking up lease agreements or demanding bribes outright.

One such target is Sergei Anikeyev, who runs a horse breeding farm near Podolsk, 60 kilometers south of Moscow. Anikeyev says he is at the mercy of the local land committee, which has yet to provide him a certificate of ownership for three hectares of land he purchased three years ago.

The farmer adds that a recent rent increase on an additional 40 hectares he leases from the land committee could kill his business once and for all. Anikeyev says:

"I built all this with my own investments, but I'm not the owner. And my children aren't the owners. I'm very afraid that I've put all this money into something but could still get kicked out tomorrow, like a good-for-nothing. What can I do? I invested so much money and now the local land committee has adopted a decree that means 'pay up or goodbye and get out.' My rent has been increased 14 times. Fourteen times! Where can something like that happen?"

Anikeyev says he suspects local authorities of trying to scare him off his land in order to sell the property for more profitable, non-agricultural use -- building a gas station or fashionable country houses for wealthy Russians.

He is fighting the rent increase in court, but says he is reluctant to press officials on the ownership issue for fear of provoking them into throwing him off his land.

Meanwhile, Anikeyev says, his horse-breeding business is likely to fail. He says no investor would waste money on an enterprise that doesn't have a clear owner.

Konstantin Mezentsev, vice president of the AKKOR farmers' association, says the dearth of Russian land legislation is to blame for cases like Anikeyev's. He says although federal law has allowed farmers to own land since 1993, any supporting legislation is so vague and incomplete that it leaves the law wide open to creative interpretation by local officials looking for a handout.

Mezentsev says bureaucrats can use to their advantage the glaring contradictions in federal and regional land legislation. He says a Moscow regional official, for example, can cite the Russian Constitution, which allows for limited land ownership. But he can also cite regional legislation, which has suspended all land deals until a complete federal land code is passed. Mezentsev puts the problem this way:

"Every bureaucrat has two documents lying on his desk. One paper says land privatization is possible. The other says it isn't. So depending on how much he likes the person sitting across from him, he can implement one or the other. And because the person in question is often not appealing to him from a financial point of view, the outcome is usually the same."

Horse-breeder Anikeyev is luckier than some. Vladimir Zhigalyov, a farmer in the Kursk region, set up his farm in 1992, hiring a number of local workers. Zhigalyov later fired his employees, accusing them of stealing grain. They in turn went to the local authorities, obtaining a document ordering Zhigalyov to share his business with the fired farmhands, who then confiscated his combine harvester and tractor.

Driven to despair, the farmer's son, Aleksei, shot and killed one of the former employees. Aleksei is now in jail, serving a 17-year sentence.

A new federal land code may in the future help farmers like Zhigalyov and Anikeyev fight the arbitrary rule of local officials looking to profit from their land. But there is still a long way to go until the concerns of Russian farmers are properly addressed.

Mezentsev comments: "For decades all anyone wanted to do was get out of the country, and these guys are fighting to stay." Without the support of a comprehensive land code, however, the farmers' fight against corrupt bureaucrats may be a losing battle.