Putin pushes for Russian land reform


The Russian President, Vladimir Putin, is meeting Russia's governors in the Kremlin to push for approval of a bill that would allow the sale of farmland for the first time since the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

"While we are arguing who must own the land, it is being conquered by weeds," Putin told the leaders of Russia's 89 provinces. "During the last decade, about 18 million hectares (44 million acres) have gone out of agricultural production - an amount comparable to the territory of France," he said.

Putin said the new bill must give the state priority in purchasing land and will contain norms that would prevent monopolisation and unfair competition and that would help fight corruption.

He said the sale of farmland to foreigners in border areas and some other territories should be regulated by presidential decrees.

"I understand the concern of those who believe that the sale of land to foreigners must not be allowed by law," Putin said. "Perhaps we should not hurry until we understand what is going on in this sphere."

Most Russian agricultural land remains under the control of collective farms whose structure has changed little since the Soviet era, when Communist ideology demanded that the state own all means of economic production.

According to official data, some 12 million Russians already own farmland. Most of them received it through the privatisation of collective farms, under which a farm's land was divided up among its workers. However, the land remains under farm management, and there is little the workers can legally do with their plots.

Russia's 1993 constitution allowed land sales, but the previous, Communist-dominated parliament fiercely opposed all attempts by the government to introduce the corresponding legislation, saying it would allow foreigners and shady tycoons to snap up farmland and devastate the country's agriculture.

Reform advocates have long said that the heavily subsidised agriculture sector needs an overhaul to make more effective use of the land. Many farms still operate according to rigid Soviet-era rules that pay little heed to the laws of supply and demand.

The Communists and their allies lost their hold over the lower house in 1999 elections, and last year the parliament passed the Kremlin's Land Code, which permitted limited land sales but did not address farmland.

Earlier this month, pro-Kremlin moderate factions stripped the Communists of key committee posts, further reducing their influence and potentially weakening opposition to the farmland bill, which is expected to be introduced to parliament soon.