Russia restores land ownership as private right

December 04, 1990|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- In a historic decision, the Russian Congress of People's Deputies ignored the objections of Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev yesterday and restored the right to private ownership of land for the first time since the 1917 revolution.

The 602-369 vote by the full parliament of the largest Soviet republic came at the end of five days of bitter debate.

Reformist deputies argued that individual farmers would not take the land or work it efficiently if they did not own it. Conservatives replied that the land was sacred, belonged to all the people and could never be bought or sold.

The final version of the decree was a compromise, proposed for fear of losing the entire issue to the conservatives, Boris N. Yeltsin, president of the Russian republic, said last night.

Under the compromise, land acquired free or purchased from the state cannot be sold for the first 10 years. After that, it can be sold only to the local soviet, or local government council.

Also, the new program does not forcibly close collective or state farms or require anyone to buy land. Some Western economists think only the deliberate breakup and privatization of the big government farms can produce real change.

Despite the restrictions, reformers hailed the decision as a breakthrough.

"From now on, the peasant will be free, free to choose the form and method of his work," Mr. Yeltsin said in hailing the vote, which was greeted with a boisterous standing ovation. "Land," he added, "is power."

"It's a peaceful revolution," said Viktor Dmitriev, a Leningrad deputy. "It means communism as an ideology is over."

Mr. Yeltsin recalled that early in this century, Russia was a major food-exporting country. The insistence on collective ownership and bureaucratic management that developed after the revolution brought it to today's catastrophic state, when stores are empty and foreign charity is needed, he said.

"Russia once not only fed itself, but other countries as well," Mr. Yeltsin said. "So our people are capable, and so is our land."

Once again, Mr. Yeltsin was pushing the economic reforms begun by Mr. Gorbachev further and faster than Mr. Gorbachev, who remains Communist Party chief, wanted them to go.

Just last week, Mr. Gorbachev told a Moscow party meeting, "I am resolutely against private ownership of land."

The Communist Party held several strategy sessions, attended by up to 600 of the parliamentary deputies, to plot a strategy for defeating the private land clause. But many deputies who remain Communist Party members broke party discipline and backed the provision.

Private farming is the centerpiece of a Russian agricultural program that encompasses greater investment in the countryside and many other measures. It applies to Russian territory, which is about three-fourths of Soviet land area, and may become a model for other republics.

It follows dozens of schemes tried since the death of Josef V. Stalin in 1953 to coax the Soviet food system toward Western levels of abundance. Since Mr. Gorbachev came to power in 1985, he has tried dividing workers on big government farms into teams and offering peasants the right to lease their own small farms.

Where farmers have leased land, they have often managed to double or triple production in the first year. But most collective and state farm workers are unwilling to try the long hours and risk entailed by individual farming, and government farm bosses have often refused to lease land or equipment.

The new Russian agricultural program gives every collective farm worker the right to leave his farm and take a share of the land and equipment with him as his property. Non-farmers may receive land free or for a relatively modest fee from the local soviet.

Backers of the program think it is far more likely than its ill-fated predecessors to work because the farmer, as landowner, will not be dependent on the collective farm as leaseholders are. They also predict that people will be more willing to take land as private property and to invest money and labor in it.

But Leonty Byzov, a sociologist who does polls for the Russian parliament, said a new poll of residents of two villages showed that only 2 percent in one village and 3 percent in another were prepared to take a substantial piece of land and hire workers to create a farm. Interestingly, he said, 4 percent of residents of the city of Kalinin, also known as Tver, said they would be willing to do so.

Another major limiting factor is investment. In many if not most cases, a farmer will need to build a house, barn and other structures, buy tractors and other machinery and have enough left for seed, fertilizer and other operating expenses.

The bankrupt state has little to offer, and commercial banking is just getting off the ground.

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