Can Russia repopulate its Far East with the offer of free land?
Have you ever dreamed of acquiring land for your personal needs without paying for it? Now many Russian citizens can realize this dream. The only condition is that the land in question will be in the Far East – about 4,000 miles from Moscow – and in a zone of uncertain prospects for agriculture.
According to a law passed last summer, Russians will be able to obtain one hectare (2.47 acres) of land as personal property with the condition that they develop it within five years. To obtain the land it is enough to file an application on the website To the Far East НаДальнийВосток.рф (website in Russian).
Halting the exodus
The idea of giving away unused land is an initiative by the Ministry of the Development of the Far East. One of the problems facing the ministry is the continuing depopulation of this region of Russia. The far eastern territories make up a third of Russia’s geographical space but currently only 6.2 million people live there, which is less than 4.5 percent of the Russian population and one third of the population of Moscow.
Even though this part of Russia has always been underpopulated and the government has been forced to take special measures to populate it, the highest demographic indicator in the Far East was at the end of the 1980s when, motived by large-scale Soviet construction projects and generous salaries, the population in the region reached eight million.
Drawing by Alena Repkina
However, after the collapse of the USSR and the cancelation of prestige projects, people began leaving to return to the European part of Russia. Today, the number of people moving out of the region has dropped, but the trend has not disappeared. Moscow would not only like to halt this outflow, but also attract a new workforce to the region.
According to the new strategy, Russia’s priority is to develop economic relations with its Asian partners, which means that it must create a dynamic economy in the Far East. To do so, an ambitious plan was adopted in 2011, part of which became the distribution of free land.
For Russia the idea is not new. It was used to attract peasants in the 19th century when Russia was actively exploring the deserted eastern lands and simultaneously trying to reduce the number of peasants suffering from great shortages of land in central and southern Russia.
The plan is still at an early stage. In June 2016, the Russian state began giving away various pilot areas in the Far East, and in October the procedure encompassed the entire Far East region. It is only from February 2017 that the program will be accessible to all Russian residents.
However, the program has already created certain problems. First, this concerns the size of the land being given away. Is one hectare a large or small amount of land? To build a dacha and conduct subsistence farming it is enough. But who will go to the Far East from affluent Russian regions just to build a dacha?
hectares − given to each male family member in the 19th century
According to Kirill Stepanov, the Far East development deputy minister, who made the announcement at the Eastern Economic Forum in Russia’s Pacific city of Vladivostok in early September, more than 120 plots of land have already been transferred and residents will receive another 250 plots in the near future.
million Russians would consider moving to the Far East
Sergey Mingazov, editor of the AmurMedia information agency, said that most people who received the land were those who had already been using it unofficially as dachas or apiaries and then decided to legalize their use. For this reason lots measuring less than one hectare – even a few hundredths of a hectare – were often registered.
Federal officials believe that the project is faltering because local officials are sabotaging it. Another problem concerning the giveaway is the impossibility of reaching the lots by car – even theoretically, since access is blocked by other lots. They are also far away from roads and lack infrastructure.
Furthermore, as explained by the general director of the Rusargo agricultural holding, Maxim Basov, in an interview with Expert magazine, there exists a particular phenomenon in the Russian Far East today in which Chinese companies use the land, meaning that while it is officially available, in real terms it is occupied. Rusargo has begun actively developing agricultural production in this region, and it is believed that the new program will help start the process of legalization of such land usage.
He also instructed the Ministry of the Development of the Far East to create a mechanism for giving a Far East hectare to Russian minors who do not have a passport. This would allow families with children to obtain “not one but four or five hectares,” he said. Trutnev added that giving land to citizens will help them become an active part of the country’s economic life, which will have a positive effect on the socio-economic situation in the regions.
During an interview with Sergei Brilev on an edition of the News on Saturday program aired on Russian TV in June 2016, Trutnev stated that the amount of land in the Far East District that is not subject to distribution suggests how corrupt the region’s officials are.
“Honestly speaking, when I met the governors and saw these figures, I told them of the level of land remaining; that is, land ‘left for me’… This for me is the level of corruption of the region’s administrators,” he said.
He added that the head of the Chukotka Autonomous District (in the far northeast of Russia) “reserved only 1 percent” of the land, while in the neighboring Magadan Region, 74 percent of the land “is not subject to distribution.”