When the ground slips out from under the feet

22 February 2017
Farmers from Kabardino-Balkaria (OC Media/Aslan Urumov)

Officials in Kabardino-Balkaria are using a complex, illegal scheme to seize agricultural land from local farmers. These powerful and connected people are lining their own pockets, and in the process depriving farmers of their basic means of making a living.

Villagers from Kabardino-Balkaria are speaking out openly against what they describe as a gross violation of Russian law, including the constitution, which guarantees them the right to use the land. Today, the lion’s share of former collective farms and public land in Kabardino-Balkaria is owned by high-ranking officials and their relatives.

For several years, residents of Nartan, a village in the Chegem District of Kabardino-Balkaria, have been fighting to regain land that was taken away from them by a group of people acting in their own interests, with the protection of the state.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and its collective farming system, land in Nartan which was once a community possession organised in a local collective farm was arbitrarily given to the newly created ‘Experimental Production Farm (OPKh) Nartan’ and declared federal property. However, there is no documentary evidence that there was ever any reorganisation of the collective farm.

According to registration documents, the function of OPKh Nartan is to cultivate locally adapted corn and to distribute it to farms in Chegem District, as well as conducting research. However, since 1992, nothing has been grown on the farm and no research has been conducted.

In 2010, the farm declared bankruptcy with debts amounting to ₽14 million ($240,000). Bankruptcy proceedings have already lasted for more than six years. ‘Why? Because the bankruptcy trustee delays bids instead of organising an auction’, says Adam Medaliyev, a villager from Nartan.

Medaliyev explains that the bankruptcy trustee has been violating the law on state municipal enterprises. Moreover, the fee charged to subtenants is several times higher than the amount that is being taxed. Why, with this violation — and many others — has the bankruptcy trustee been left unpunished for so many years? Medaliyev believes that he’s being protected by corrupt officials from the region’s administration, which is fused with business structures. In particular, he cites S A Ashinov — head of the regional Federal Property Management Agency — who is under investigation for allegedly crossing paths with law enforcement regarding OPKh Nartan. Ashinov faces up to four years in prison.

Meanwhile, large plots of 400–1,500 hectares are being subleased to people associated with the corrupt scheme. There is no land for local people, who want to rent or subrent small plots of 2–5 hectares. According to Medaliyev, all of this is already under investigation and he hopes for a positive outcome.

‘Even before the auctions, the land was transferred to large tenants — employees of the municipality or influential officials’, Medaliyev says. ‘Now auctions are being held, but they auction too large plots (100–1,000 hectares) and they put forward conditions for 100% prepayment for the land. A farmer isn’t able to rent a large area and isn’t able to pay 100% of the price outright. Therefore, we believe that the auctions in this form are not a panacea.’

Medaliyev says that the major tenants are government officials from the district administration, in the Parliament of Kabardino–Balkaria, and in other local power structures, but the land is formally registered to nominees. Everyone knows about this, but it is impossible to prove their involvement in court. Meanwhile, people and their families are left without land, and consequently, without work or a livelihood.

‘We, the residents of the rural settlement of Nartan, believe that we are being illegally deprived of the opportunity to use public collective land’, Medaliyev continues.

The land is slipping from under our feet, and not only for farmers in the Chegem District of Kabardino–Balkaria. Over recent years, according to land-deprived farmer and horse-breeder Ibragim Yaganov, a group of people using practically the same scheme have caused other farms to go bankrupt before selling them off, including pedigree stud farm, Kabardinsky, and the Kotlyarevsky collective farm in Maysky Region.

In 2013, there was a confrontation between farmers and local authorities in a number of settlements of Terek District. The problem was the same — peasants could not use the land. Collective farmland was handed to a small group of long-term tenants in the 1990s (for 49 years with the right to prolong the lease); this way they became large landowners. This has left people from the villages of Krasnoarmeyskoye, Verkhny Akbash, Verkhny Kurp, and Botashi, without livelihoods.

In the majority of villages in the Kabardino-Balkaria, only rural teachers, doctors, and administration officials have means to support their livelihoods, as they receive salaries. The rest are unemployed and the land is the only means for them to feed themselves and their families.

One villager from Verkhny Kurp, Askerbi Ashkhotov, describes the plight of the villagers.

‘Many people don’t even have money to buy bread in the shop. They also have no means to keep livestock. Young people leave the village in order to find employment opportunities in other regions of the republic or Russia. As labourers, they work under scorching sun for sums such as ₽500 ($9) a day. Under such conditions, their health quickly deteriorates, and the money is only enough for a short while. People who leave to work in Russia don’t always return home with the money they earned’, Askerbi says.

‘How many Kabardians were already brought home from such work placements in coffins?’ Askerbi asks rhetorically. ‘No-one knows exactly. Every year our dead children are being returned home, and those who manage to return safe and sound say that in Russia we are ‘beasts’, ‘blacks’, ‘khach’ [a Russian ethnic slur towards Caucasians], while no-one needs them in their homeland.’

Residents of Terek District believe that the landowners deliberately poison the cattle farmers keep them in their backyards. The most recent outbreak, of moist dermatitis, destroyed almost all privately owned livestock in the district. They believe that this is done to stop residents from demanding pasturelands.

One resident of the village of Verkhny Akbash, Murat Aksorov has been fighting for six years to be allocated land. Despite being a veteran, handicapped during the Afghan war, he’s unable to receive any.

‘All this land belongs to the officials of Terek District administration — individuals, who are not citizens of Kabardino–Balkaria — as well as MPs of the republic’s parliament. Each of them leases (and actually owns) plots of 500 hectares or more. These include the police chief of Terek District and other bigwigs. Leases are registered, of course, to third parties. The real owners of this once collective land are closely related to each other and to republic-level officials. It’s a real mafia! In this situation, Federal Law #131 on the principles of local self-government doesn’t work at all. People from the district administration, in order to protect their personal interests, use all means in order to keep people obedient to them in local councils’, Aksorov says.

For many years Aksorov did his best by all means at his disposal to get at least five hectares, but he failed.

‘They just lie to us, lie to our faces and put our applications in the trash’. They hide the dates that auctions are conducted he says. ‘They even burn entire issues of the regional newspaper, Terek, where they usually publish the dates of auctions. They buy the whole edition for ₽56,000 ($1,000) and destroy it, so people willing to take part in the auction wouldn’t find out about it. There is no information available online.’

Oleg Serkov, from the same village as Aksorov, says that the administration feels absolute impunity, they threaten people so that they don’t make claims to the land, while some are seduced with gifts.

‘They use all their administrative resources for it’, Serkov says. ‘Here it is the same as in American Western movies — the law is at the disposal of private interests. Last year, when we decided to work on the land which we thought was ours, we were immediately surrounded by five crews from the State Road Safety Inspection. It seems that at that moment, the regional administration didn’t have any other mobile unit available’, Serkov says.

He believes that the corrupt authorities use mafia-like methods to threaten people. When residents of the villages of Kabardino-Balkaria decided to organise a demonstration in Moscow in order to attract the attention of the central government to their problems, there was an attack on one of the activists of the movement — 65-year-old Anatoly Balkizov. The attackers cracked his knee joints with rubber batons.

Earlier, one of the leaders of the land committee was brutally beaten. One of the locals from the village of Verkhny Akbash in Terek District was shot. He was one of the residents who wanted to declare his right to the land.

According Aksorov, the local government council planned to nominate its own candidates on the eve of the election, but shortly before the ballot, the head of the Department for Combating Extremism of the Russian Interior Ministry in Kabardino-Balkaria met with a group of peasant-activists. This, in his opinion, was a clear demonstration of the capabilities of their opponents. Others were dissuaded, intimidated, or bribed.

‘I was threatened and warned a number of times,’ Aksorov says. ‘They will do anything — they can toss something incriminating in your private car — drugs or a weapon. You have to be particularly careful.’

Nevertheless, farmers from the villages of Terek District plan to start using the lands this spring.

‘What can happen? I try not to think about it’, Aksorov remarks. ‘Whatever happens I will continue fighting for the land, and I am not alone.’

Human rights activist Valery Khatazhukov says that the problem must be solved as soon as possible.

‘There are cases of land appropriation, which causes conflicts translating into an open confrontation. All this is happening because the best land is in the hands of a small group of people, some of whom are officials at different levels. They are lobbying for the interests of the new landowners.’ According to Khatuzhakov, ‘In order to solve this issue, honest government officials and community members need to unite their efforts’.

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