After Ruling, Most Dachas Still Not Homes

MTFew Moscow region dachas, such as these, are located in residential areas and will benefit from the court's decision.
"Without a document, you're an insect. With a document, you're a person," goes a Russian saying.

A Supreme Court decision related to the country's registration laws has generated hope among people who make their permanent residence at their dachas, but it seems unlikely that the court's ruling will help most of these people escape the "nonperson" category anytime soon.

Everyone living in the country is required to have a registration stamp either in their passport or, if the registration is temporary, on some other appropriate document. Without this stamp, Russians cannot apply for most jobs, get loans from banks, send their children to school, sign up at medical clinics or even stay at hotels.

Prior to an April 14 decision from the Constitutional Court, people who resided permanently at their dacha — a dwelling built on an allotment and usually considered mostly a summer residence — could not have themselves registered there and, as a result, could not access a broad range of benefits and services.

The court's widely publicized decision found in favor of seven dacha owners from Krasnodar, agreeing that they should be allowed to register at their dachas, as they were their sole places of residence.

But as is often the case, the court's decision may not lead to much in the way of changes in the way things work.

Compulsory registration in cities was part of the tsarist internal passport system and, after being abolished during the Revolution, was reintroduced by the Soviet government in the 1920s in the form of the propiska, or residency-permit system. The ultimate effect was to make some people illegal residents in their own country, and gaining a propiska for Moscow or Leningrad was particularly difficult.

In the early 1990s, the propiska system was replaced again by registration. Russians are required to register in a place if they have been living there for longer than three months. Although the system is not as strict as the propiska system was, it would still prevent people like the dacha owners in Krasnodar, who had sold their previous accommodations, from claiming benefits.

At first glance, the decision seemed to mean that any dacha owner could now get registered there.

"If your dacha is suitable to living in, you'll get registration!" ran a headline in Komsomolskaya Pravda.

It sounded good to people like Olga Silina, 26, who rents in Moscow and can't afford to buy an apartment right now but will later need registration to send her child to school.

"We're now just considering buying a dacha," Silina said. "One of the deciding factors is the adoption of such a law."

Unfortunately, the decision is not as far-reaching as it sounds, experts say, and will likely only affect a tiny number of people in Moscow and the Moscow region.

The Krasnodar dacha residents who appealed to the Constitutional Court all live in gardeners' cooperatives — or groups of dachas — built on land within a residential settlement rather than on land classified as agricultural.

Almost 13 million families in Russia have small lots of land they use for gardens, Martin Shakkum, the chairman of the State Duma's Construction and Land Use Committee, said in answer to e-mailed questions. From 25 to 30 percent of these are located in residential areas, meaning that the owners could benefit from the court decision.

Few dachas in Moscow region, however, fall within this group.

"In the Moscow region, these are isolated cases — the vast majority of gardeners' cooperatives are located on land allocated for agricultural use, where registering residents is impossible in principle," Tatyana Pirogova, the senior lawyer in the property department at legal consulting firm Sameta, said in an e-mailed comment.

The law on dachas is convoluted. People could be registered there only if the land was originally allotted for the construction of a dacha — not for a garden or some other non-residential use — and the buildings itself has to be declared suitable for permanent residence.

And the requirements don't end there.

"The law only applies to people who don't have another residence," said Valery Polukhin, a member of the Council for Land Use in the Moscow region, a consultative body that offers free legal advice to the public.

Half of the dachas in the Moscow region are owned by Moscow residents, Polukhin said. "As a rule, people who are given or buy dachas already have property."

"The dachas have to conform to the Housing Code, to have electricity, and so on," Polukhin added. "It's not so simple."

It is hard to say how many dachas there are in the country, as there is no central governmental organization that registers them. Under the Soviet system people were often assigned dachas by the factory or organization where they worked, while others organized dacha-building cooperatives. Many people have yet to privatize their dachas to gain ownership.

According to the 2006 agricultural census, 80,000 cooperatives have been formed in the country by dacha and garden plot owners, accounting for almost 14 million land lots. Government officials, however, have estimated the number of dachas in the country to be as high as 30 million.

The hungry 1980s and 1990s saw a boom in the creation of dacha cooperatives, and these private plots still play a key role in filling people's pantries today. The State Statistics Service reported in 2006 that 90 percent of the country's potatoes were grown on private plots, rather than on farms.

The Constitutional Court decision leaves in place many of the old requirements, so dachas will still have to be "residential buildings suitable for permanent inhabitation" in order for people to register at them.

The Krasnodar residents had running water, heating and indoor plumbing at their dachas, NTV reported.

Because new legislation has yet to be passed to reflect the court's ruling, eligible dacha owners can gain registration only after obtaining a decision from a court that their housing is adequate.

The government has three months to submit the necessary amendments to reflect the court's ruling, but Shakkum said it is unlikely to be discussed in the Duma before the fall session. He said regional legislatures had the right to pass laws defining which dachas are suitable for habitation before the Duma adopts federal legislation.

The regional element is important, Sameta's Pirogova said, as the changes will mainly affect people living in southern Russia, because of the peculiarities of local land use.

"In most cases, this applies to gardeners' cooperatives in southern Russia — in the Krasnodar region, where land within settlements was allocated for gardening and the local authorities refused to register the owners, citing the specified permitted use of the land," Pirogova said.

Gennady Savinov, deputy general director of development at real estate agency Istra-Gorod in the Moscow region town of Istra, described the situation as a "tempest in a teacup."

"Both in the Moscow region and in Russia as a whole, no more than 1 percent of dacha owners will meet both the requirement of having a dacha located on settlement land and of an evaluation by an expert that the dacha is [suitable as] an individual dwelling place," he wrote in answer to e-mailed questions.

"One of our clients asked about the probable rise in value of his land because of the 'possibility' of registration at dachas," he said. "But we prefer to tell our clients the truth, not what they want to hear."