Capitalism sprouts on Russian farmland

For more than a decade, Anatoly Kibeka has been a peaceful counterrevolutionary. One of the first Russians to start a private family farm, in 1991, he has weathered controversy and harassment, but now his country's parliament has finally vindicated him.

"It's 10 years late, but it's a good beginning," says Mr. Kibeka of a new law passed in late June by the state Duma that, for the first time since the Bolshevik Revolution, will permit the buying and selling of agricultural land.

A burly and jovial former professor of agricultural science, Mr. Kibeka says he doesn't take much interest in politics. He has his hands full combating an invasion of Colorado potato beetles, keeping his ancient machinery running, and fussing with 50 acres of cabbages he fears might perish in this summer's dry spell.

"All these [political] battles, reforming this and that, just keep people from doing productive work," he says. "I grow vegetables, which people need – that's my political statement."

Yet Kibeka has been at the center of one of Russia's toughest post-Soviet political struggles, and one which may be far from over. Polls show at least half of Russians oppose private ownership of land, and a majority of the 12 million people who belong to the moribund Soviet-era collective farms, which still control three-fourths of Russia's arable land, are mostly dead set against the idea.

The Communist Party has promised to force a national referendum to revoke the law, one that experts believe they could win. "Land is an emotional issue for most Russians; they don't think of it as a commodity but as the foundation of national power and wealth," says Ivan Klimov, a sociologist with the independent Public Opinion Foundation in Moscow." You can't reach them with practical arguments."

For Kibeka, the debate ended long ago. "Land is only as valuable as what it produces," he says. "And the current system of agriculture in this country is a mess."

In 1990 agriculture accounted for 16.4 percent of Soviet Russia's gross domestic product; in 2000, according to the World Bank, that figure had shrunk to just 7.5 percent. Many collective farms produce at only a subsistence level, and an estimated 10 percent of productive land routinely lies fallow because of the collective farms' inability to cultivate it.

After the USSR's collapse, Kibeka managed to acquire almost 7 1/2 acres from an academic institute near Podolsk, about 30 miles south of Moscow, to set up an experimental farm. He has since leased another 250 acres of state-owned land. These fields now produce three to four times as much as the collective farms that previously worked them.

"There's no simple explanation for the difference in productivity," Kibeka says, with a shrug. "Being a farmer is something between your ears."

A tough row to hoe

It hasn't been easy for him, particularly when it comes to marketing. Local cooperatives won't work with private farmers. Kibeka made direct links with a company that provides food to kindergartens, hotels, and other institutions. He says he has had few difficulties with local officials, but the intense hostility of neighboring collective farmers has been a constant problem. "They simply fail to understand that this is my choice in life; it's nothing against them," he says. "I don't know, maybe they're envious, or just angry about the way things are in the country, but they certainly make everything harder for me." He declines to elaborate.

Private ownership of agricultural land has existed in theory since former President Boris Yeltsin handed over control of almost all Russia's arable land to the members of the country's 27,000 state and collective farms a decade ago. But actual land sales have not been permitted until now. Today, Russia has just 260,000 private farms operating separately from the collective system, and their numbers have dwindled in recent years. The new law will make it possible for some prosperous farmers, like Kibeka, to purchase the lands he has been leasing from the state – and for outside investors to acquire land to create new agricultural businesses. As a concession to the Communists, the Kremlin introduced a last-minute amendment to the law that bans foreigners from purchasing Russian farmlands.

Critics warn that the effect of the Duma's dramatic break with Russian history may be unpredictable. "You shouldn't confuse this law with a comprehensive land reform," says Yevgenia Serova, an agricultural specialist with the liberal Institute of Economics of the Transition Period in Moscow. "The law is a compromise between many different forces, which only legalizes the existing mess in our countryside. Russia needs revolutionary steps to put land into the hands of the most effective owners."

Experts say that land ownership is Russia's most vexatious political issue for many reasons, some historical. Family farms were rare in Russian until, ironically, the 1917 revolution, when Lenin fulfilled his promise of land to the peasantry by breaking up the enormous estates owned by the gentry into some 25 million private plots. Joseph Stalin reversed that with a brutal collectivization campaign a decade later, which killed millions, with the most successful farmers being especially targeted, and created today's rural landscape of huge collective farms. Since the USSR's collapse, many efforts to promote private farming have foundered on a lack of resources to sustain change.

"The Russian countryside has been plundered for nearly a century, everyone with vigor has left, and there is little there to begin anew with," says Yevgeny Butovsky, director of the Barley Production Center of the Russian government's Agricultural Ministry. Almost a quarter of Russia's population lives in rural areas, but they are overwhelmingly elderly or otherwise unfit for work, he says. For many, the collective farms represent not just the past, but the only existing anchor of stability and source of income in a rural wilderness of hopelessness and poverty.

Successive Soviet governments built few paved roads, storage facilities, or processing industries. As a result, up to 40 percent of collective farm produce is still wasted between field and shop counter. Add to that Russia's short growing season, finicky climate, and poor soil.

"Farming in Russia is not for the faint at heart," says Kibeka.

Future transactions

Critics of land ownership say that collective farmers, with no material prospects of starting their own operations, will be compelled to sell their land shares cheaply to speculators.

"Look what happened in the 1990s. All Russia's industries and resources were grabbed by a few rich oligarchs," says Yury Savinok, an official of the conservative Agrarian Party, whose electoral base is collective farmers. "Does anyone doubt the same will happen when land goes on the block? Ordinary Russians will be dispossessed again."

Most experts agree that any deep transformation of Russia's countryside is probably decades away.

"Legalizing the sale of land is a historic moment, but it is not a panacea. It's just one of many miracles that will have to occur," says Kibeka. "I have 100 hectares of Russia, and I'm going to change that. The rest is up to everyone else."

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