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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Land Ownership to Prove Key Issue for Duma

Land ownership, lacking a clear and comprehensive legal basis, is likely to remain one of Russia's most controversial issues in 1996.

The winners of the December parliamentary elections, the Communists and the Liberal Democrats, are prepared to countenance some elements of private ownership, notably long-term leasing, but both fall short of accepting full private rights to land as property.

"The Communist Party has always been and still is against private land ownership," said a press representative of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation. "We are specifically against private property on agricultural land and we will be trying to implement this principle in the new Duma. We think if most people voted for us, it means they also support us on the land issue."

In reality the Communists will have to go against the tide. In 1995, millions of rural and urban Russians became effective owners of private land plots.

Land is being sold and bought throughout the country under several laws and regulations issued by President Boris Yeltsin and the government.

In 1995 alone, 300,000 land sales were registered by government authorities. One half of these deals concerned state land, according to the Russian Agricultural Research Institute.

Russian law allows cooperatives and individuals to buy plots of land and build houses on them. In the cities the law on privatization allows the sale of land under the buildings of companies that have been privatized and also the land under unfinished construction sites.

St. Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak last January formally authorized buying and selling of land under the premises of privatized enterprises and nonresidential buildings in Russia's second city. In Moscow the city government last year approved long-term land leases that almost amount to ownership.

"Land is being sold and bought across the country and nobody can stop this process," said professor Vasily Uzun, a senior researcher at the Russian Academy of Agricultural Sciences. "People have already approved private land ownership."

Two-thirds of Russia's agricultural land is already in private hands, Uzun said. This year most of the land previously owned by collective farms was divided between country dwellers, and they were given documents saying that the land is their private property.

The land issue is above all a legal one. The Russian Constitution and the law on land reform, both dating from 1993, allow Russian citizens to possess land as private property. But there is still no comprehensive code for land ownership.

A more comprehensive legal basis was first attempted in 1994 in the form of a draft land code prepared by the leftist Agrarian party faction in the Duma. It was discussed in parliament but not passed.

After a year of painstaking work, which included accepting some 800 of around 900 amendments, the deputies rejected the code for the first time in March 1995 and then again last November.

The final text of the bill was an attempt to find a compromise between radical reformers, who insisted on a free land market, and left-wingers who rejected the idea of private land ownership out of hand.

The draft code allows private land ownership, but with limitations: A farmer could be given land with the permission of local authorities and the collective farm to which the land belonged, under the condition that he uses the land only for agricultural purposes.

He would not own the land outright, only lease it, and he would not be able to sell it for ten years after the code came into effect. For cooperatives and collective farms, there is a five-year moratorium on land sales.

The code also permits private ownership of industrial land, but renting out such land would only be possible if the tenant rented all the buildings on it also.

The code would impose a ban on changing the use of purchased or leased land, with the state empowered to impose large fines or even confiscate holdings.

The code, if adopted, would cut foreigners out of the land market. Foreigners would not be allowed to own land either in cities or in the countryside. Long-term leases would, however, still be possible.

It is unclear what will happen to the draft code in the new Duma in 1996. Last September Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, who supports complete private ownership of land, said he would call a national referendum on the issue if the land code is passed in its current form.

He considers the code inadequate in giving land ownership rights. "There must be private ownership of land [in Russia]," the prime minister said.

The Communists and Liberal Democrats both oppose the idea of a referendum.