Publication: Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 199

Saratov oblast is on track to become the first Russian region to legalize the free sale of agricultural land. The Monitor’s correspondent in the Volga region reports that a regional law on land, which states that owners have the right to "sell land, present it to someone as a gift, mortgage it, bequeath it, and perform other actions with the land they own" was adopted by the oblast Duma in the first reading on October 22. The issue of the sale of agricultural land is major bone of contention between President Boris Yeltsin, who favors its legalization, and Russia’s Communist-dominated Duma, which opposes it.

Saratov’s bill is the initiative the region’s activist governor, Dmitry Ayatskov, who often likens himself to an earlier governor of Saratov, Tsarist prime minister and land reformer Petr Stolypin. When Ayatskov unveiled his draft on October 13, it took the oblast Duma by surprise. The chairman of the oblast Duma’s Finance and Budget Committee, Vladimir Churikov, told journalists the bill was being rushed through in an effort to put pressure on the State Duma to liberalize federal legislation.

Ayatskov acknowledged at a meeting of skeptical local dignitaries on October 17 that, if Saratov adopted the law he was proposing, the region would be venturing into uncharted waters and acting against the spirit of the land code adopted by Russia’s State Duma. The federal bill, which expressly outlaws the free sale and purchase of agricultural land, has been vetoed by President Boris Yeltsin. Ayatskov followed Yeltsin in arguing that the State Duma is at fault in that the free sale of land is an essential component of the constitutionally guaranteed right to private ownership of land.

Skeptics present at the emotional and heated October 17 meeting warned Ayatskov that he was flying in the face of Russian tradition, which favors communal land ownership. They argued that most people today cannot afford to buy land and that land will as a result fall into the hands of speculators, loan-sharks and foreigners. The representative of the local nationalist organization argued that Ayatskov’s bill was un-Christian since, he said, the Lord gave land to man to till free of charge. A well-known regional economist accused Ayatskov of a mercenary desire to rake cash into the oblast coffers.

Unmoved, Ayatskov put pressure on the 34-member oblast Duma to give the bill its first reading on October 22. The bill was approved by 26 of the 27 deputies present at the session, with one vote against. At the same time, the Duma introduced some restrictions, stating that agricultural land must continue to be used for farming and that those who use it for other purposes will be subject to fines. (Izvestia, October 22)

President Yeltsin’s press secretary said the president approves Saratov’s initiative and hopes other regions will follow suit. The governor of neighboring Samara oblast, Konstantin Titov, says his administration is drafting a similar law. The Saratov bill still has to go through a second reading before it can become law. The decisive meeting of the oblast Duma is set for the beginning of November. (RTR, October 23)

Yeltsin is apparently hoping to exploit the regional initiative to sideline the State Duma. Yeltsin is to discuss the land code with parliamentary representatives at the first meeting of the new roundtable on November 22. If things go according to plan, Saratov’s law will by then already be in effect.

Ukraine Between East and West.