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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rocky Road to Legal Land Sales

APDespite frequent protests against land sales, the Duma looks set to keep it on track.
After last fall's approval of the Land Code, which legalized the sale of urban and commercial land comprising about 2 percent of Russia's 1.7 billion hectares, legislators are set to start debating a bill later in April that would initiate the turnover of agricultural land comprising another 23.8 percent.

But there is much to do before large-scale land sales can start: Even after the laws are signed by President Vladimir Putin, additional legislation must be prepared by the regions to specify details including land prices and the conditions of tenders or other ways to sell land.

Some regions quickly produced such packages after the Land Code passed. For example, the Leningrad region is already close to issuing land ownership certificates to Philip Morris in the Lomonosov district, Caterpillar in Tosno and Ford in Vsevolozhsk, said Valentin Sidorin, adviser to regional Governor Valery Serdyukov.

However, the most desirable land in Moscow and the Moscow region is not yet on sale, as it is still waiting for the legislation to be clarified. Another reason for the delay of land sales in Moscow is the absence of a clear division between land owned by the federal government and that owned by the city of Moscow.

The Moscow administration has announced it is to start sales of urban land in the summer. However, it did not elaborate on the conditions of the tenders.

Currently, less than 20 federal entities officially occupy land identified as federal, including the Kremlin, the Supreme Court, the Constitutional Court and the Federation Council. But in the process of fulfilling the law on the division of lands that was enforced in January, Moscow might lose thousands of hectares of land under federal organizations and state enterprises. Real estate experts see a battle ahead: Every percentage of Moscow land taken by the federal government would result in losses to the city on average of several million dollars.

Battles were expected in the State Duma over the agricultural land turnover bill that was approved by the government last month. However, after the April 3 reshuffle of top Duma posts, Communists and Agrarians lost three important committees in the Duma, including the one in charge of the agricultural land bill. Now the bill, which left factions blocked for a decade, is expected to sweep through smoothly.

With about 260 deputies out of 450 in the Duma supporting any government-backed bill, no public demonstrations protesting "sales of the fatherland" could affect the new move, which -- Communists and Agrarians fear -- may become as inequitable as other Russian privatizations.

The definition of agricultural land takes in more than just the land under crops or farms. It also includes wilderness, buildings, roads, small lakes and rivers and even small forests. Of 406 million hectares of agricultural land, only 190.7 million hectares, or 47 percent, is arable land, according to official statistics. Due to the decline in agriculture in recent years, 30 million hectares of this land is idle, subject to erosion and covered in weeds.

However, some experts, including Voronezh region Governor Vladimir Kulakov, believe that about 20 percent of arable land is not included in official records and its production is prey to the black economy.

Most arable land -- 113 million hectares -- was privatized by about 12.4 million villagers in the early 1990s, but the ownership certificates amount to little more than pieces of paper and are difficult to sell officially. Sales have been proceeding in many regions but tend to be corrupt insider deals rather than beneficial for the nation.

Supporters of the new agriculture turnover bill believe it may cut the Gordian knot that has slowed the rural economy's development.