Soviet Armenia Frees Farm Sector

Republic's government sells huge tracts of land to citizens, despite Moscow's objections

IN the shadow of Mt. Ararat, Ishkan Melkunian stands on his own piece of historic ground - a private farm. A broad smile crinkles the sun-bronzed face of the Armenian farmer as he points to his wife and children carefully tending newly planted rows of melons.

``This is my land,'' he proclaims. ``Now we will get everything that we work for.''

Mr. Melkunian is no anomaly, no showpiece island of privatization in a collectivized sea. The kolkhoz (collective farm) that ran this village of Poker Vedi since 1939 simply no longer exists. The petty bureaucrats who sat in the offices, the orders from Moscow on what to plant and when to plant it, are gone. The land has been distributed to all the 940 households in the village.

Farms privatized

In the rich Ararat Valley, every kolkhoz and sovkhoz (state farm) has been similarly broken up. Of about 1,000 such collective farms in the Soviet republic of Armenia, only about 120 remain, most only in part. By the end of April, about 60 percent of Armenian farmland had returned to private hands.

Talk of land reform has been a hallmark of perestroika (restructuring) since Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985. But so far it has been only talk, with the exception of small experiments in leasing of land. Even the Russian Republic's more radical government has managed only pronouncements of the theoretical legality of private farms.

Only in this mountainous Caucasian land has the nightmare of Joseph Stalin's forced collectivization of agriculture, begun in the late 1920s, finally come to an end. And it was done with a speed and deliberation that belie the persistent protestations of Soviet officials that land privatization is unrealistic.

Moreover, the Armenian case lends credence to the belief that the impetus for reform in the Soviet Union now lies with the republican governments. The Communist central government in Moscow appears to play a role only as an obstacle to reform.

The road to reform began last August when the Armenian nationalist movement ousted the Communist Party from power following the first free parliamentary elections. Following its declaration of sovereignty, the Armenian parliament moved quickly to pass market-reform laws, starting with a law on private property in October, leading up to adoption of a land code on Jan. 30.

``Land reform comes first, because private ownership of land will naturally lead to private ownership in other areas,'' says Hrant Bagradian, the deputy premier in charge of economic affairs. Land reform provides employment, increases personal incomes, and creates goods and resources. The next stage, which began in late April, is to privatize small business, particularly services such as food stores, which will sell the produce of the farms. The large firms, which are least prepared to function in a mar ket economy, will come last, he explains.

The land law gave the equal right to ownership of land to all residents of a village, whether members of the collective farm or not. After distribution, the owners have two years to pay a relatively small amount, depending on the quality of land, and then are free to sell it to anyone. The only restriction is that land must be used for agricultural purposes.

Many Soviet economists have argued that the same path should have been followed for the entire country. Instead the Soviet leadership, including Mr. Gorbachev, has opposed private ownership of land. The Armenians have been told they are violating Soviet law, particularly by giving the farmer the right of resale. Even the more liberal Russian law, which has hardly been used, allows resale only to the government.

Mr. Bagradian sees evidence of Moscow's ``intent to ensure the reform's failure'' in the cutback of deliveries of seed, fertilizers, and other inputs to a third of previous levels. But he is confident they will see increased production this year, simply because farmers are inspired to work.

Across the Soviet Union, initial steps to land reform have faltered because the kolkhoz bureaucracy, which is the Communist Party's power base, refuses to introduce reforms. The Armenians solved that problem by transferring ownership from the kolkhoz to the village council, where the nationalists could control the process.

Poker Vedi is proof that the Armenian land reform, despite problems, is working remarkably smoothly. The entire process took less than two months. After passage of the law, Poker Vedi got detailed instructions on how to carry it out. Those came a little after Feb. 20, recalls Misha Yeragosian, the deputy head of the village council. On Feb. 27, a new election to the council was held, ousting most of the old members.

Party loses support

The Communist Party organization in the village was already in collapse, its committee dissolved, and its offices turned over for other use. Mr. Yeragosian admits to being a party member for 17 years, but hastens to add that ``I never believed.'' Everyone has left the party, he says simply.

Shortly after the election, the council organized survey teams, which went out and mapped and divided the land into 4,000 square-meter plots.

Yeragosian pulls down the weathered, creased survey map and spreads it on the table. The village land is carefully divided into numbered plots, each graded by the quality of the soil into five levels. The price ranged from 4,800 rubles ($3,000 at the commercial rate of exchange) a hectare (10,000 square meters) for the best to 250 rubles ($156) for the worst. A household of up to three people was entitled to 4,000 square meters, of four to five persons, 8,000 square meters, and above six, 12,000 square meters.

Households could opt to work their land on their own or to form groups, which many did, based on their old work brigades in the collective farm. In theory, they could also opt to stay in the collective farm but no one did so.

On March 4, the entire village gathered for a lottery drawing of pieces of paper marked with the plot numbers. In that one fell swoop, the collective farm ceased to exist, with even the kolkhoz chairman taking his private plot. The village council retained the ownership of all the equipment - the tractors and trucks - which they now rent out to the farmers. Fertilizer, pesticides, and so on are being sold by the government from depots that service several villages. The farmers are free to se ll their produce wherever they want, with only one exception - that it be within Armenia.

Vahan and Zaruvi Serozibadalian, together with their three children and Vahan's mother and sister, received one hectare of land. The land was graded as third-level quality, for which they will pay 4,670 rubles ($2,920). Vahan and his wife stand by the blue tractor, which he has driven for 10 years in his job as a tractor driver at a nearby state farm. Besides working his own land, Vahan will get paid for plowing his friends' fields.

Not everyone in the village is happy. Samson Myrdtichia is a 45-year-old ironworker who has lived in Poker Vedi since 1950. He and his family live in a house they built themselves, its cool plaster walls covered with calendars and pictures of his sons in military uniform. His wife works their parcel as part of a 40-to-50-hectare spread, farmed by a group of 30 people who had worked together on the collective farm.

``They wouldn't have been able to take care of it alone, so they stayed in a group,'' he explains over a cup of tea at a bare wooden table. But things are not better, he complains. ``There's no technology. And they're working for nothing until they reap a harvest. The kolkhoz was very good the way it was before. The old way. You worked, and at the end of the month you received your salary.''

Verab Zadoyan is the village agronomist, the only kolkhoz official to keep his job. Mr. Zadoyan stands and talks in the fields that he still patrols, checking the crops and the work as he has always done. He does not yearn for the ``good old days.''

``People used to work all day for one or two or three rubles a day. Before, I would plead with people. There would be 300 tons of tomatoes sitting in the fields and people would say, `Forget it, why should I go out there?' The land was wasted.''

A tale of two fields

Zadoyan points to two fields, one carefully planted, the other overgrown with weeds. The first, he says, will be worked by a family; the second, by one of the large groups, which he says don't work well. They chose to stay in groups because their members were afraid to work alone or had husbands working in the city, he says.

In contrast, ``the individuals work from sunup to sundown,'' Zadoyan observes. ``By the end of the year, even the collective groups will be splitting into smaller units,'' he predicts. Gradually the farms will consolidate, becoming more efficient.

The key problem in the village now is water. The smaller parcels make it difficult to divide up and distribute water. A tractor fitted with a plow moves down through the fields, digging new irrigation canals to reach the fields. But farmers complain that their fields are planted and ready but no water has arrived. The village council has set up a priority system, sending water first to land planted with wheat, then with livestock feed, and finally to the fruit and vegetable fields.

After a day at Poker Vedi, there seems little doubt that within a year or two these problems of transition will be sorted out. Those who don't want to farm will move on to other work. Those who remain, will produce and make money.

Why shouldn't this work in Russia, we ask Zadoyan. ``Our people are industrious people - the Russian people are not,'' he responds. ``Those that don't drink and work hard, they can make the land work for them.''

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