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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Duma Gives Nod to Sale of Farmland

Itar-TassCommunists protesting outside the State Duma on Thursday before deputies approved the government's bill on farmland. The white banner reads: "Fire the Government!"
The State Duma approved in first reading Thursday a government-backed bill allowing the sale of farmland.

The vote marks one of Russia's most radical steps to liberalize the economy since the collapse of the Soviet Union. If the bill becomes law, Russia's farmland will be a commodity for the first time since the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

Farmland accounts for 23.8 percent of the country and is worth between $80 trillion and $100 trillion, according to Agriculture Minister Alexei Gordeyev.

Lawmakers voted 256-143 with one abstention for the Cabinet's version of the bill, 30 votes above the minimum required.

The Duma must pass the legislation in two more readings before it can be sent to the Federation Council and then President Vladimir Putin for approval.

Putin has indicated that he will sign the bill.

The president signed separate legislation allowing the sale of commercial and residential land and dacha plots late last year.

In addition to the land under crops or farms, farmland includes wilderness, buildings, roads, small lakes and rivers and even small forests.

Voting on Thursday took place after a heated, daylong debate in which the Communists and their allies fiercely denounced the proposal as the sale of the homeland.

Outside the Duma, about 200 Communist protesters rallied with signs reading "To Sell Land Is to Sell the Motherland" and "Fire the Government!"

Nearby, a small group of people waving Union of Right Forces flags chanted, "Forward with reform."

At the start of the discussion, deputies were presented with seven drafts drawn up by various factions and deputies.

The version offered by the Communists and their Agrarian supporters demanded a ban on foreigners owning land and attempted to avoid using the word "sale" altogether.

Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznyov, a Communist, and Agrarian Deputy Oleg Smolin also attempted to postpone the reading in favor of putting the issue to a national referendum.

Two versions of the bill were quickly withdrawn in a gesture of support for the government, leaving five for the deputies to debate. In the late evening, the government's version was voted the best.

The bill offers a general framework for the sale of farmland that prohibits foreigners from buying land around national borders or near restricted and top-secret facilities. It also limits sales in areas where the amount of farmland per capita is limited.

A list of territories excluded from the market will be part of a separate presidential decree.

The bill also requires that purchased farmland be purposefully used and limits the options for converting farmland for other uses.

To further control the turnover of farmland, the bill includes a clause that gives local authorities first rights of purchase at the asking price.

Regions will be able to decide for themselves issues such as how much farmland foreigners and individual owners can buy.

"The government-proposed draft foresees tough state control of farmland sales, with the control levers in the hands of the regional authorities," Gordeyev said, Komsomolskaya Pravda reported Thursday.

Foreigners' rights to buy farmland and the size of the plots are likely to be the focus of debates before the second reading.

The date for the reading has yet to be set.

Although farmland sales are formally allowed in the 1993 Constitution, no legal mechanism has ever been developed.

The leftist-dominated parliament of the 1990s managed to avoid the issue for two terms. The 1999 elections changed the political ratio in the Duma.

Even without the legislation, a gray market for farmland has existed in Russia for years, Ivan Starikov, the head of the Federation Council's agriculture committee, was quoted by Interfax as saying Thursday.

Starikov estimated that farmland sales already amount to $10 billion a year.

Some 12 million Russians already own farmland, much of which they received through the privatization of collective farms, The Associated Press reported, citing government data. However, until the farmland bill is passed into law, there is little the owners can do with the land.