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Does Belarus need a referendum on restitution?

Does Belarus need a referendum on restitution?

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A round-table conference titled ‘The Agrarian Reform’ took place at the Minsk office of the Movement For Freedom (MFF) on November 20. The prospects for the reform implementation were discussed by experts in this field, as well as by the specialists on the issue of local government reform Piotr Mihurski, Mikhail Zaleski, Uladzimir Navasiad, and Andrey Zavadski. The discussion was organised as part of the People’s Programme initiative on devising the plans for transformation.

It was pointed out at the round-table conference that despite the high level of subsidies that amounts to 60% as compared to the global level of 20% to 30% of the gross output value, Belarusian agriculture’s share in the GDP has decreased by 5.1% over the last 5 years.

Almost 90% of the agricultural organisations are unprofitable. Agriculture’s debt as of October 1, 2013 is more than Br 76 trillion (over €6 billion), that is 1.7 times higher than the proceeds from sale, which makes the problem of debt repayment unsolvable.

Annual non-production losses (cattle plague, poor product quality, fodder overrun, and low rate of return of materials and equipment) amount to a fantastic sum of up to €3.7 billion, which is the major argument as for the low efficiency of the Belarusian government’s agricultural policy.

“The outflow of qualified personnel from rural areas, primarily the specialists, continues, which may result in irreversibility of the numerous negative trends in agriculture. Much of the Belarusian products, even with large subsidies, cost more than European products; they are only competitive at a limited number of markets, and the export is, on the whole, unprofitable,” said Piotr Mihurski.

In his opinion, the causes of the Belarusian agriculture’s unprofitability are the absence of the country leadership’s political will to transform the system of agrarian relations, the reliance on retention of state-owned collective farms, and the bureaucratic behaviour of governmental structures at all levels, which has naturally led to the degradation of the individual’s role in agriculture.

“The main inhibitive factor for agricultural development is the current type of ownership: there is no efficient owner in our country today (95% of lands belong to the state) who could become a widespread force managing the agricultural sector,” says Mihurski. “It should be noted that private farms’ cost-efficiency is 40% higher than that of the state-owned agricultural organisations.”

They manage to be so efficient even despite the absence of equality of access to resources as compared to the state-owned agricultural organisations, the absence of the freedom of choice of markets, the limitation of financing of production, and, surely, they cannot compete with the state-owned collective farms, points out the People’s Programme expert.

At the same time, the well-known economist Mikhail Zaleski notes that “the condition of morals and society that has historically developed in Belarus will inevitably lead to the attempts of abusing the private ownership to land.” Therefore, “an unrestricted use of land should be prohibited under relevant laws.” And “citizenship and state of residence should be the basic restriction to the ownership of land, as, for example, is required of a presidential candidate.”

The expert thinks that since the events of the last hundred years in Belarus have completely confused the distribution of land, which complicates the issue of determining the legitimate owners, the national Commission on Agrarian Reform should be created. Within five years, such Commission should conduct a full accounting of the distribution and utilization of usable lands and create a Registry that will specify the initial condition (as of the date of completion of the Commission’s work) and include the procedures of reflecting the subsequent changes as for the boundaries and land owners.

On completion of the accounting work, the expert offers to put the issue of restitution to a national referendum in the following wording: “Should the land that was taken away from peasants for creation of state-owned farms and for other uses in the USSR, the Byelorussian SSR, and the Republic of Belarus be returned to the respective owners or their heirs?”

How would you reply to such a question at a plebiscite?

See more information on the experts’ positions concerning the land reform here.

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