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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Land Decree Gives Yeltsin Political Win

President Boris Yeltsin has scored a brilliant political victory with last week's land decree. With one stroke, he broke a two-year deadlock on land, forced his opponents onto the defensive, and made himself a champion to a portion of the electorate that most analysts had written off as committed communist supporters.

There is no question that bold measures were needed to get land reform rolling. The Duma has sat on the Land Code for more than two years, leaving farm workers in a legal limbo: They theoretically owned the land that they worked, but they had no right to dispose of it.

According to the Land Code, which was drafted by the communist-allied Agrarians, a farmer could sell his land only with the permission of all other members of the collective farm, which would, in effect, keep the old system largely intact.

Under the president's decree a farmer can sell, mortgage, or give away his land, provided only that the new owner be a Russian citizen and pledge to use the land solely for agriculture.

It would be difficult to conceive of a measure that would change the national economy more drastically. More than 12 million Russians are full-time agricultural workers, engaged on former state or collective farms. Yeltsin has just made them into land owners.

The decree makes no pretense of solving all of the issues related to the buying and selling of agricultural land. It raises many more questions than it answers.

It does, however, draw the broad outlines of a plan to create a real estate market in Russia, toppling a major obstacle to a genuine market economy.

For the first time since the Bolshevik Revolution, land will be bought and sold freely, and millions of Russians who have so far been largely left out of the reform process will have a stake in the new economy.

The Communist-controlled Duma is now faced with the unenviable choice of either putting limitations on farmers' rights to dispose of their land or approving, albeit grudgingly, Yeltsin's initiative.

Communist and Agrarian party leaders have already expressed their angry opposition to the decree, as well as their intention to take the matter up with the Constitutional Court. But while the parliament engages in legal bickering, the land decree will begin to change the face of Russian agriculture.

With presidential elections just three months away, taking land rights away from millions of farm workers is, at best, a risky measure.

The Duma can fight Yeltsin, and take the chance of alienating farm workers, or it can give in. In either case, this round of the election campaign battle goes to the president.