Yeltsin, Foes Discuss Land Code
By David Hoffman
The meeting around a huge circular table in the ornate Catherine Hall did not settle the centuries-old dispute over Russian land ownership, nor did it promise to revive agriculture, one of Russia's most troubled economic sectors. But it did produce a rare example of Yeltsin and some of his most bitter foes working together on an issue that has set them apart for years.
Yeltsin, looking physically fit, called the session "a new form of reaching democratic decisions." His opponents seemed to like the idea. Twenty-eight party leaders and government officials sat at the table, including Yeltsin's foes -- the Communists and their soul mates in rural Russia, the Agrarians.
Land reform has been gridlocked politically for years. Yeltsin and liberal reformers championed the idea that land, including agricultural land, should be freely bought and sold. The Communists, Agrarians and nationalists have fiercely opposed this. These factions dominate the lower house of parliament, the State Duma, and have passed a restrictive land code, which Yeltsin has rejected.
Regional leaders who make up the upper house of parliament also want their say.
Today, Yeltsin took a step toward his opponents. In September, he had declared that "land must be a farmer's property and he alone can decide what to do with it." He sharply chastised the Duma for passing a land code that included restrictions on buying and selling farmland.
But in an opening address before the round table today, Yeltsin said "we should not rush" to a decision. He said the land market must be under "strict state control," including a ban on sales to foreigners, limits on who can acquire land and a total ban on the sale or change of use of a plot in the first years after it is acquired.
Nonetheless, Yeltsin said he would fight to bring land into Russia's market economy. Some regions have started creating their own laws in a bid to bypass the deadlock in Moscow. Yeltsin noted, "No matter how much we have argued, one thing is clear: Land reform in Russia is already under way and is accelerating."
Critics say it is happening only because Yeltsin and his opponents have failed to do anything in Moscow. Many specialists say that untying the knot of disagreements over land ownership in Russia could help spur the long-dormant agricultural sector, which is hampered by many other problems as well, including the legacy of Soviet collective agriculture.
Of Russia's farmlands today, according to Kremlin statistics, 286.5 million acres are former state or collective farms. Many of them have fallen apart in recent years as state subsidies dwindled and young people fled. Only 31 million acres are private farms, most of which began in the late Soviet years. Small private plots at country houses and private homes, which are some of Russia's most productive lands, account for 20.2 million acres.
Yeltsin also noted that Russia lacks some of the basic institutions for regulating a land market, including a land register, and has no laws on mortgages. Yeltsin said an owner must have the right to sell land, give it as a gift or mortgage it. The Duma's legislation would deny all of these rights, he said.
Yeltsin signed a five-point consensus protocol at today's session. According to Sergei Shakhrai, Yeltsin's envoy to the constitutional court who organized the round table, the points are: a ban on sale and change in the use of a plot of land for some years after it is sold; strict restrictions on who can till agricultural land; a ban on sale of land to foreigners, who would be allowed long-term leases; letting regions decide the maximum size of a plot of farmland allowed to be in private ownership; and creation of real taxation such as a single land tax.
Shakhrai said the protocol will be followed by a joint working group of the president and his opponents, which will attempt to come up with compromise legislation on land reform. They still disagree over such fundamental issues as the conditions for buying and selling farmland.
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