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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Cabinet OKs Bill To Sell Farmland

Calling it a "burning issue for the nation," Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov on Thursday signed off on a government plan to legalize agricultural land sales for the first time since the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917.

"There is now no law on the sale and purchase of land, yet such sales and purchases exist in large quantities," Kasyanov told a Cabinet meeting. "This lowers the real value of Russia's farmland and encourages corruption and the ineffective use of land," The Associated Press quoted him as saying.

"The time has come to remove the irregularities and establish a clear, transparent law," Kasyanov said.

Of Russia's 1.7 billion hectares, roughly a quarter, or 406 million hectares -- nearly five times the size of Brazil --is classified as agricultural, and about half, or 190.7 million hectares, is arable.

Liberals have long argued that legalizing the sale of agricultural land is an integral component of overall market reforms, but conservatives fear foreign ownership of national soil and argue the bill could hurt poor farmers.

The government's draft law, officially called the Law on Agriculture Land Turnover, would allow foreigners to lease but not own land near national borders. It would also preserve so-called land parcels, which are technically owned by some 12 million peasants but used by former collective farms.

Under the government's proposal, such parcels must be dedicated to agricultural purposes if they are sold on the secondary market, and regions will have some authority on some issues.

"[This bill] is of fundamental importance," Agriculture Minister Alexei Gordeyev said after the Cabinet meeting. "And it attracts the attention of all the political parties, movements, the population and economic organizations."

"The main target of the law is to preserve property rights," he said.

Five other versions of the same bill have already been prepared and submitted to the Duma.

They are sponsored by: Boris Nemtsov's Union of Right Forces; Adrian Puzanovsky's People's Deputy faction; Duma Deputy Gennady Kulik, a former deputy prime minister in charge of agriculture; Nikolai Kharitonov, the head of the Duma's agro-industrial group; and Alexander Chetverikov, head of the Duma's agriculture committee.

At just a single page, the Union of Right Forces' draft is the shortest. It says simply that agricultural land must be sold without limitations.

The other drafts include a variety of proposals, including one requiring landowners to have a higher education in agriculture. Four call for a blanket ban on foreign ownership.

Experts, however, say it is doubtful that any of the alternative bills will be accepted, as was the case with the seven Land Code drafts prepared by different Duma factions. In the end, the government's version was voted in.

The government's bill is expected to be submitted to the Duma on Tuesday. It was expected to elicit even more opposition in the Duma than last year's debate on the Land Code, which legalized the buying and selling of urban land.

But Nikolai Plotnikov, head of the Duma's Agrarian faction, appointed by the Duma to steer the draft through the required three readings, said such virulent reaction is less likely now that the government has opted for a compromise version. "[The government] has found the right approach to the law already -- it has prepared a compromise version," Plotnikov said by telephone Thursday.

There will be, however, constructive debates.

Plotnikov said that the bill was filled with inconsistencies and hazy definitions. "But it is very good that the government has already taken into consideration many of our proposals -- I mean not hurrying to single out private land plots that are held in common by agricultural farms now," he said. "This will only lead to a war between peasants [for the best plots].

"It is also good that the regions will be able to make some decisions. We have very different regions, and what works in the Moscow region would fail in, say, Dagestan," Plotnikov said.

Plotnikov said the bill would be "posted to the regions for their thorough examination straightaway." The other five have already been sent, he said, adding that the Duma will likely vote on the state's bill before summer holiday.