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Russia: Duma Votes To Restrict Sale Of Farmland To Foreigners

Last month, Russia's State Duma gave tentative approval to a government-sponsored bill that would allow the sale of Russian farmland for the first time since it was nationalized after the October Revolution in 1917. According to this version of the bill, even foreigners could purchase farmland. Centrist lawmakers, however, voiced concerns that the bill would allow foreigners to grab most of Russia's agricultural land. The Duma approved today, in the second reading of the bill, an amendment that allows foreigner to lease but not purchase farmland.

Moscow, 21 June 2002 (RFE/RL) The Russian State Duma, or lower house of parliament, approved today, in its second reading, a bill that would permit the sale of Russian farmland.

The bill that lawmakers voted on included a clause to ban the sale of agricultural land to foreigners or to companies whose capital majority is foreign-owned. Deputies agreed, however, that foreigners can lease Russian land.

The original version of the bill, which was backed by the government, allowed foreigners to buy and sell farmland but gave local authorities wide discretion over whether to allow such sales or whether to put land in borders areas off-limits.

But centrist factions with the majority in the Duma demanded a ban on the sale of farmland to foreigners.

Vyacheslav Volodin is the leader of the centrist Fatherland-All Russia (OVR) faction. He told reporters in a press conference before today's voting that farmland should not be bought or sold like an ordinary object, and that a good law should regulate such selling. "For us, it is very important that this law [on farmland] help to solve several problems. First of all, that the land is used only for agricultural purposes. [Moreover,] we think that land shouldn't be sold in border areas of the Russian Federation. [Moreover], we believe that in other parts of the Russian Federation, land should be sold only to Russian citizens. Foreign citizens should have the right [only] to rent land," Volodin said.

Volodin said centrist factions fear that foreign investors might buy most of the available Russian farmland. Volodin said Russian citizens should be protected from such a scenario. "We think that today, [Russian citizens] cannot compete with foreign citizens. Today, if we don't protect those who work our land, they will find themselves out of the competition, and this would be unfair. This is the position of the centrist factions," Volodin said.

The lawmakers also voted to limit the amount of land one person can own in any one of the country's 89 subjects of the federation. The government's bill originally set a limit of 35 percent, but lawmakers voted to change it to 10 percent.

Last month, the State Duma gave tentative approval to a government-sponsored bill to allow the sale of Russian farmland for the first time since it was nationalized following the 1917 October Revolution.

Today, most Russian agricultural land is controlled by collective farms, where the structure and production technology haven't changed much since the Soviet era. Many Russians oppose a law allowing the sale of farmland.

Today's centrist press conference was interrupted by a group of Cossack peasants who worked in collective farms in Russia's southern Krasnodar Krai. The Cossacks, dressed in their national costumes, raised angry voices against any law on selling land.

Vladimir Sotnikov, a peasant who worked in the region's collective farms for 40 years, told RFE/RL he came to the State Duma with a group of friends to protest. "There shouldn't be any land sales. Our grandfathers and great-grandfathers fought to protect [our land]. They spilled their blood for this land. I myself worked for 40 years in this land. I have corns on my hands. When we heard about the land sale and, moreover, to let foreigners rent it out, [we say] that this mustn't happen. The issue is not up for discussion. It should even be removed from today's agenda," Sotnikov said.

The head of the centrist Unity faction, Vladimir Pekhtin, said people who generally oppose the sale of farmland are hampering economic growth in Russia. "Those who, thinking in a populist way, say that centrist factions are selling the motherland are making a mistake. Those who today are against a farmland code, against putting some order into, and taking defensive measures about, land sales, are hampering the development of our society," Pekhtin said.

Hundreds of communists staged a demonstration outside the Duma today, yelling, "Selling land means robbing Russia!" They called for the resignation of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his cabinet.

Putin spoke out Wednesday against giving foreigners legal permission to purchase Russian farmland, saying he understands the concerns raised by the centrist factions.

The bill has to go through one more reading at the State Duma and must then be approved by the upper house, the Federation Council, and signed by Putin to become law.

Last October, the Federation Council passed a bill that permits limited sales of land. The State Duma overwhelmingly approved the new Land Code in the last of three readings in September. That Land Code, which received strong support from Putin, did not apply to farmland.