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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Can Putin Answer Russia's Land Question?

YAROSLAVL, Central Russia -- What do the potato patches and dairy farms that ring this city have in common with the barren wind-swept steppes of Siberia?

The government owns them. Russia has more land than any country and the government owns nearly all of it.

And that makes perfect sense to most Russians. So farmers were upset when acting President Vladimir Putin - the front-runner in March 26 presidential elections - suggested selling the fields and turning Russia into a nation of landowners.

"Why should we sell our land? So that foreigners can buy it? So that [Russian] criminals can buy it and watch it disintegrate?'' asked Alexander Zylev, director of the Molot collective farm, 240 kilometers northeast of Moscow. A portrait of Vladimir Lenin hung crookedly above his desk.

The last decade has brought free elections, free media and privatized many stores and businesses. But reformers say the country cannot be considered a real democracy or build a market economy until it abandons the Soviet system of state ownership of land.

They also say farms will never be productive until they move into private hands. But who would want to buy the much-abused land the nation has to offer?

Most of the country's 150 million hectares of agricultural land are still farmed collectively. Yet the farms produce a fraction of what they did in the Soviet era - and they were grossly inefficient then.

Although it has some of the most fertile farmland in the world, the nation relies heavily on food imports. Record-low grain harvests in the past two years prompted the country to beg for 8 million tons of food aid from the United States and European Union.

Zylev's farm is cluttered with broken-down tractors, and half its cowsheds sit empty, filled with snow seeping through rotten roofs. Across the nation, farm workers often take home leftover vegetables as wages - or steal them. Farmers can't afford fertilizers, feed or equipment, and are diving deeper into debt.

Putin recently suggested holding a referendum on "the land question,'' which he has called a key priority. And the State Duma, which saw many hard-liners ousted in December elections, could finally give the country a post-Soviet land code that would encourage private farming.

"The question is whether Putin will be strong enough to overcome the public fear of free land sales, the conservatism among Russians - rural and urban,'' said Cameron Sawyer, who runs a Moscow-based real estate company.

As bad as agriculture looks now, many citizens fear private land ownership would be worse. Farmers worry serio us reform would shut down unproductive farms and cost them their livelihoods, and city dwellers worry about food supplies drying up.

In addition, most citizens are too poor to buy the land, and farmers fear rich Russians or foreigners will snap it up and take it out of agricultural production.

Valentin Milto is a rarity in the countryside. He wants to buy the land his Russian-Dutch company, Agronova, uses for growing potatoes.

"I need permission from the local administration to do anything. ... To seek a loan, to sell seeds to a neighboring farm,'' Milto said, while inspecting a well-stocked Agronova warehouse west of Yaroslavl.

But even his own employees are resisting his efforts to buy land.

"I trust my bosses, they're good people. But if one foreigner buys land, then another will, and soon all of Russia will be foreign,'' said Tatyana Zhidkova, a seasonal worker stuffing beets into buckets.

Working land leased from state farms around Yaroslavl, Agronova produced four times as many potatoes per hectare last year as the national average. It was one of the region's few agricultural businesses to turn a profit.

Its neighbors, including Zylev's Molot farm, were not pleased. Some complained to local authorities, and Agronova had to seek new land plots after one lease deal soured.

Technically it's already legal to buy and sell land, thanks to decrees signed by former President Boris Yeltsin. But the nation still lacks a State Duma-a pproved land code, keeping potential buyers away. Only about 6 percent of the nation's land is in private hands.

Besides, the people with money aren't interested in taking over farms with bloated payrolls and mountains of debt.

Demand for land is so low that the land Agronova wants to buy would cost 500 rubles ($17.54) a hectare, Milto said.