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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin: Foreigners Won't Buy Up Land

APPutin speaking to the State Council during the hearings on land sales Monday as Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov looks on.
President Vladimir Putin told the State Council on Monday that sales of farmland are vital for the country, but said that foreigners may not get a chance to buy any agricultural land in the near future.

"While we argue over who should own the land, weeds become its master," Putin told his advisory State Council. "People from agricultural regions know that over the past 10 years alone we have lost 18 million hectares of arable land [out of cultivation], roughly the total France has."

The government still owns almost 70 percent of agricultural land, with the rest mainly in the hands of individuals running small plots.

Putin said legislation was needed to attract investors into developing big, efficient farms.

"Investment in the land is always long-term. It would be no exaggeration to say it takes not years but generations to yield returns," he said in introductory remarks to a debate on a government bill on agricultural land.

"I understand the concerns of those who think that probably at the current stage we should not allow foreigners to legally buy land," Putin said. "I admit that for a time, until we understand what is going on, maybe we should not act hastily."

Land reform, pieces of which have been pushed through parliament despite fierce opposition from left-wing parties, is part of Putin's reform package which he hopes will lure investors and help pull millions of Russians out of poverty.

Seven bills detailing rules for selling and buying agricultural land in Russia are currently under consideration in the State Duma, but debate is largely focused on the one submitted by the government.

In Soviet times, the state heavily subsidized Russia's vast agricultural lands that sprawl over 11 time zones from the Bering Strait near Alaska to the Baltic port of Kaliningrad.

The 1991 demise of the Soviet system gave peasants the right to carve up their collective farms among themselves but not to sell. They formed new companies, but burdened by old inefficiencies most went under despite huge state aid.

The communists, whose main electorate is among the rural population, have made an issue of the free sale of land. They accuse the Kremlin of selling out Russia to capitalists and "foreign tycoons."

A small group of left-wing protesters with red flags and anti-market slogans marched outside the Kremlin while the debate went on inside.

Putin, who is widely expected to seek re-election in two years time, also said the law should detail punishment for turning arable land to other uses and give the government a priority right to buy land as a way to avoid corruption.

Governors largely agreed the government bill had enough checks and balances in it to prevent the rich scooping up the land on the cheap to sell it off at a profit later.

Many also said the current conditions in Russia warranted little concern that foreigners would pour in, cash in hand.

"I do not think there is a single region where rich foreigners are lining up to buy land," said Nikolai Fyodorov, head of the central republic of Chuvashia. "And it will be decades before a line forms up, believe me."