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In Far East, Locals Wary Of Russia's Bid To Draw Newcomers

"We have some good memories, but then the collective farm fell apart. People took everything they could carry off and that was that," one Novgorodka resident recalls.

SVOBODNY, Russia -- This city is officially categorized as a monocity, or one in which a single enterprise accounts for the lion's share of the economy. In Svobodny, that enterprise is the Amurzoloto gold-mining concern.

It is located in the Far Eastern Amur Oblast, where the population has declined by 25 percent over the last 30 years. In August, President Vladimir Putin personally ordered the cabinet to implement a development plan for Svobodny during a trip to the region. That plan envisioned 48.8 billion rubles ($865 million) in development spending.

That scheme will supplement another initiative under which the government gives plots of land to ethnic Russians living abroad or in other parts of Russia to move to the remote region. As of the end of 2017, the government had received 104,000 applications and had handed out 31,000 plots. At the beginning of this year, the federal Ministry of Far East Development announced plans to increase the subsidy for new settlers to 1 million rubles ($18,000).

But the efforts to breathe life into Amur Oblast have produced uneven results so far, with many longtime locals complaining that newcomers are getting assistance that they badly need themselves.

About a dozen kilometers outside Svobodny, the gravel road leads to a tidy group of newly constructed homes.

New power lines run along the road. New tractors and other farm equipment are neatly parked, awaiting the arrival of spring. The plowed gardens are resting under a light cover of snow.

The Old Believers' settlement outside Svobodny is well equipped.
The Old Believers' settlement outside Svobodny is well equipped.

The little settlement is home to 27 Old Believers whose forefathers left Russia at the time of the 1917 Bolshevik coup and ended up in distant Uruguay. They arrived in Amur Oblast two years ago, enticed by a Russian government program aimed at populating the barren region by offering ethnic Russians living abroad land and subsidies to return to the motherland.

The patriarch of the clan, Fyodor Kilin, tells RFE/RL that the family is happy with the way local authorities have greeted them and that more relatives are on the way from South America. "My son plans [to expand]," Kilin says, "to put up some new buildings. They are offering help. What's it called? A grant. He already got one."

The little group now has 1,592 hectares of land (almost 4,000 acres). "Good land," Kilin says. "We can't complain. The pumpkins were particularly good this year. We are feeding them to the cows." They have 15 cows and are selling their milk to a store in Blagoveshchensk.

The administration so far has given them grants of 5 million rubles ($85,000) to set up their farms. Officials built the road and put in the power lines. The government sends a teacher to teach the children. Amur Oblast Governor Aleksandr Kozlov has invited the Old Believers to tea.

Just a stone's throw from the Old Believer settlement and about 10 kilometers out of Svobodny is the village of Novgorodka. It is a typical decaying former collective farm characterized by ramshackle houses, rusting cars, and some 700 residents.

There are no new tractors, no neat roads, no freshly installed power lines. In fact, there is no sign that this village is in the heart of the government's Territory of Accelerated Development. No one in Novgorodka has ever had tea with the governor.

"What kind of development are you talking about?" asks an elderly woman who gives her name only as Baba Katya. "Nothing is developing here and no one is helping us. We don't produce anything. We used to have cattle -- you can see the large barn over there. We had it pretty good.... We have some good memories, but then the collective farm fell apart. People took everything they could carry off and that was that."

'No Support' For Farmers

A little farther down the street, behind a tall wall, stands the impressive home of Novgorodka's most successful farmer, Yury Koshelyov, a stocky man with a quilted coat, felt boots, and a suspicious look in his eye.

But he soon warms to conversation.

"Here we have Gazprom. And the [Vostochny] cosmodrome is getting going," Koshelyov says of the $7 billion-plus national spaceport project. "But I can't say that anyone came to us specifically and said, 'We aren't going to buy stuff just anywhere -- let's have your stuff.' They bring everything in from Altai, from Barnaul. No one needs agriculture here. Everyone is focused on Gazprom, on the power mainline, on the oil pipeline, and the cosmodrome. In the West, they support agriculture. But I don't see that here."

Koshelyov explains that he began his farm in 2000, a time when the state paid little attention to private farmers. Around 2013, he says, he came under pressure from local officials who told him that in order to qualify for grants, he'd have to start raising livestock.

"What do I need that for?" he says. "Cows have to be raised and you need the right conditions for that. You need people and facilities and so on. You can't just decide to do it and, boom, it happens." He mentions a farmer named Danilov who "took 100 head of cattle and was bankrupt in five years."

"In the West, they support agriculture. But I don't see that here," Yury Koshelyov says.
"In the West, they support agriculture. But I don't see that here," Yury Koshelyov says.

'They Fill Their Own Pockets'

Local officials insist that the Far East development program is primarily aimed at improving the economy by helping local businesses. "Our goal is to help our local, Amur entrepreneurs fill these niches," Amur Oblast Minister of Foreign Economic Ties, Tourism, and Entrepreneurship Sergei Dmitriyenko announced at a press event in November.

"There are programs designed especially for people in the Far East," he added. "They include loans for businesses set up in monocities, such as Svobodny, and the Far East Hectare program that should be of interest to entrepreneurs from the Svobodny region."

But Koshelyov says it isn't easy for locals to get access to such assistance programs. Regional trade organizations often control access, and getting their approval usually involves promising them some of the money.

When some 70 percent of Koshelyov's farm was flooded in 2013, officials finally gave him compensation for less than half the damage.

This year Amur Oblast produced a record harvest of 1.3 million tons of soy, for instance. As a result, however, the price fell to half what it was two years ago.

No one in Novgorodka has ever had tea with the governor.
No one in Novgorodka has ever had tea with the governor.

"Other countries try to help farmers," Koshelyov says. "But here everything is the reverse. They fill their own pockets and want to force us to our knees."

"We thought that when the cosmodrome got started, we would be able to sell our produce there," he adds. "But it hasn't turned out that way. I don't know what they are doing there, but I haven't noticed any difference. There haven't been any changes for me."

'Not Real Money'

In Svobodny, other locals are also skeptical and even resentful of the government's plan to offer 1 million rubles to newcomers.

"This plan won't change anything," a 30-year-old ophthalmologist who gives his name as Andrei tells RFE/RL. "Just giving money isn't enough. You need to create conditions so people can plan years ahead, so that they have confidence in the future. That is what we lack today."

An officer in the newly formed National Guard named Sergei says that he sees mostly "minuses" in the plan.

"In Blagoveshchensk people are already very angry," he says, "and constantly quarreling over nothing. A lot of them drink -- both men and women -- and wander around in, to put it mildly, an inappropriate state. So you never know who will be attracted by that million. Normal people won't be lured by this program -- it isn't enough money for them."

Yekaterina, a young mother of twins, agrees.

"They shouldn't give the money for coming to the Far East," she says. "They should give it to those of us who stayed here. And what is a million rubles, really? In euros, that is real money. But in rubles you can spend it all and not even notice. Considering the prices we face, that hasn't been real money for many years."

Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting by RFE/RL's Russian Service correspondent Maryana Rimskaya in Svobodny