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Thursday, 27 June, 2002, 01:39 GMT 02:39 UK
Russian farmers look for private harvest
Cows on the Sinkova farm
Private businesses can now milk farm profits
The BBC's Caroline Wyatt

Here in the peaceful Russian countryside, it is hard to imagine just how revolutionary the new law passed to allow the sale of farmland will be.

In the bright sunshine, the hay harvest in Sinkova is well underway, with tractors chugging their way in neat lines across the vast fields.

Through the winter, the sweet-smelling hay will feed the dairy cattle grazing peacefully nearby.


Now rich Russians will feel able to invest in the land, because the legal structure of ownership will be clear

Farmer Alexander Butchkin
Little has changed on Sinkova's "model" farm, just two hours north of Moscow, for decades.

It is state-owned, rather than a collective, and its 2,300 hectares employ 650 people - rather more than most western farms.

Now everything is set to change. On its third reading, Russian MPs finally approved a bill that will allow Russians to buy farmland for the first time since the Bolshevik Revolution.

Putting the land into state ownership was one of the central tenets of Communism in 1917, when Lenin passed a decree handing Russia's farmland to the peasantry to till.

Later, Stalin collectivised the farms, and brought untold misery to the Russian people as famine followed.

State farms 'never worked'

Alexander Butchkin has run Sinkova's farm for the past 10 years.

He says collectivised farms never really worked - they were too inefficient and nobody took responsibility.

Sinkova farmer Alexander Butchkin
Manager Alexander Butchkin would like to own his own farm
Sinkova is a well-managed farm, and sells its potatoes, beetroots and cabbage in Moscow's top supermarkets.

Mr Butchkin is proud of the high quality of the milk its dairy cows produce, which is bought by the western company Danone.

But he admits quietly that he would be even prouder if one day he could save up enough to own such a farm for himself.

"I think this new law was the right decision for Russia," he tells me.

"In fact, we should have done it sooner.

"I hope now the land will have proper owners - and with that, real investment, which it hasn't had in the past.


If rich people were allowed to buy the land, they'd use it for pleasure, not work, to build dachas on, and not to grow vegetables or anything useful like that

Farmworker Yelena Barbodka
"Now rich Russians will feel able to invest in the land, because the legal structure of ownership will be clear."

Sinkova probably will not be on the list for privatisation.

It is doing well as it is, and investment has not been a problem here.

But farmworker Yelena Barbodka does fear that if the land were sold, she and many of her colleagues might lose their jobs, or be forced onto lower wages.

"I don't want to work on a private farm - I like working for the state," she said.

Sinkova farmworker Yelena Barbodka
Farmworker Yelena Barbodka is worried about losing state support
"It means I feel secure. I know the state will give us money if something goes wrong.

"If rich people were allowed to buy the land, they'd use it for pleasure, not work, to build dachas on, and not to grow vegetables or anything useful like that."

Reformers in the Russian Parliament had to fight to get the new law passed - quite literally.

Last year's debate ended in fisticuffs between opposing MPs.

Strong opposition

In the end, the modernisers won, despite Communist and Agrarian party claims that selling off the land was a betrayal of the Russian people.

Thanks to their opposition, the new law includes many safeguards.

For example, foreigners will not be allowed to buy farmland here, ensuring it stays in Russian hands.

Tractor on the Sinkova farm
Russians hope it will be a more peaceful revolution than that of 1917
They will be able to lease it, but the fear - perhaps unfounded - was that rich western companies could flood in and take the best land, leaving Russians with little.

This time round, the government is determined to ensure a rather more peaceful revolution.

At a press conference at the Kremlin on Monday, the Russian President Vladimir Putin promised that any privatisation would be done slowly, after the bill comes into force in six months.

He knows that such a decisive break with the past still worries many Russians.

At the same time, though, many farmers here, like Alexander Butchkin, are looking forward to the day they can fulfil their dream of a farm that is all their own.

See also:

26 Jun 02 | Business
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