Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Land Crisis in Kabardino-Balkaria

Farmers say a failure to privatise land has left them impoverished.
By Luiza Orazayeva
The recently appointed president of Kabardino-Balkaria Arsen Kanokov is under pressure to change the land laws which still forbid private ownership, as farmers complain that the countryside is in a catastrophic state.

The village of Karagach in the northeast of Kabardino-Balkaria used to be one of the largest and richest in the republic, famous for its record wheat yields in Soviet times. That is no longer the case, though.

Recently, a Karagach villager, Habas Tanov, wrote to President Kanokov asking him to legalise land ownership and help the village “out of poverty”.

“The main dream for every ordinary villager is private ownership of land,” Tanov said in his letter. “We have to give out land to those who live on it. They should become the owners, not the agricultural bureaucrats who stole everything under the collective farm system and afterwards during the time of crisis.”

Kanokov acknowledged that the land issue was a problem in a speech to the local parliament on April 12.

“A lot of problems have accumulated here which demand a thoughtful and balanced solution,” he said. “We are talking about a gradual and partial transfer of land into private ownership, and about creating the basis for developing a market in land.

“In the long term, we should move to private ownership of land.”

Kanokov, a successful Moscow businessman, was brought in as the new leader of Kabardino-Balkaria last October to implement economic reform in the backward republic.

Although the rest of Russia has moved ahead with reforms of the land ownership rules, Kabardino-Balkaria, one of poorest parts of Russia, is lagging behind. A series of cautious reforms have fallen short of allowing full land ownership for individuals, and farmers still rent their land from the local authorities.

In 2004, Kabardino-Balkaria’s parliament passed a new law under which farmland is the property of local government authorities, which have the right to lease it out. But full privatisation of land was postponed for 49 years.

Viktor Nesutulov, who chairs the parliament’s committee on agrarian policy, said he was confident that the current law was in accordance with federal legislation.

However, farmers say the new law only made the agricultural crisis deeper. The rental prices set for land were too high and thousands of hectares of land remained uncultivated. The authorities promised to supplement the rent payments with money from the republic’s budget but the sums they allocated were tiny.

Economist Safudin Elmesov, who worked for a long time in the agriculture ministry, said, “Of all types of land stewardship, rent is the most ineffective. It means no one cares for the land, because the tenant is not sure he’ll be able to retain his plot the following year. As a result, he tries to squeeze the maximum out of the rented land while taking minimum care of it.

“Nor does renting solve the problem of village employment, as the majority of residents don’t have the equipment, fuel or fertilisers [they need] to rent land.”

The bulk of food consumed in Kabardino-Balkaria is imported from outside. A visit to any food shop will confirm this: most of the milk, grain products and sausage on sale comes from neighbouring regions.

For many years the economy of Kabardino-Balkaria was reliant on dozens of small plants producing vodka, but many have now closed.

Oleg Akhmetov, who heads the local branch of the Agrarian Russia association, is one of many who blame the regime of former president Valery Kokov, removed last year, for the current land crisis.

“The reason why land is not being given out is that it has in fact already been distributed secretly,” said Akhmetov, pointing the finger at officials who served under Kokov.

Opponents of private ownership argue that the republic does not have enough land to make it possible. However, at more than 300,000 hectares for a total population of 900,000, the republic has 0.34 hectares per person, a ratio three times that of the Netherlands.

The presidential representative for the North Caucasus, Dmitry Kozak, has said that Kabardino-Balkaria’s economy is 15 to 20 years behind the rest of Russia. The republic’s social and economic level places it third from the bottom among Russia’s 89 regions.

Zalimgery Fiapshev, a farmer from the village of Verkhny Akbash, describes the failure of land reform as a “national tragedy.”

“Farmers have been given the most remote and unproductive land,” he said.

Some farmers have tried to band together to form their own cooperatives, but been obstructed by the authorities. Some have taken land claims to court, and after these were thrown out on two occasions, their case is now being considered by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Farmer Ruslan Tamazov formed an agricultural cooperative and has been trying without success to acquire land for it to work for several years,.

“The people are degenerating because of unemployment, poverty and despair,” said Tamazov. “Drunkenness and theft is widespread in the villages. They steal cattle, poultry and property. In our village, they’ve stolen dozens of kilometres of electricity lines for the scrap metal, they have robbed a unique duck farm, and dismantled several farms down to the last brick.

“Families which have several children and where the parents don’t work are dragging out a pitiful existence.”

Tamazov is clear about who he blames for the situation in these farming communities, “It’s the shameful work of the previous corrupt elite. The people who were in power all these years should be held to account for the state of affairs in the villages.”

Professor Timur Shalov, an expert on land use at Kabardino-Balkaria’s university, warned that popular dissatisfaction over the issue is potentially explosive. “The land situation could lead to social revolt. We saw what form that revolt might take on October 13, 2005,” he said, referring to the attack on Nalchik last year in which around 100 people died.

For the moment, the government appears reluctant to embrace full privatisation of land. According to deputy agriculture minister Radii Zherugov, “We can’t distribute land as private property because it’s impossible to divide it up fairly. There is no mechanism for doing that.”

Luiza Orazayeva writes for Kavkazsky Uzel news agency in Kabardino-Balkariya.