Yeltsin's Agricultural Policies
The Yeltsin regime has attempted to address some of the fundamental reform issues of Russian agriculture. But agricultural reform has moved very slowly, causing output to decline steadily through the mid-1990s. Reform began in Russia shortly before the final collapse of the Soviet Union. In December 1990, the Congress of People's Deputies of the Russian Republic enacted a number of laws that were designed to restructure the agricultural sector and make it more commercially viable. The Law on Peasant Farms legalized private farms and allowed them to operate alongside state and collective farms, to hire labor, and to sell produce without state supervision. The same session of the congress passed the Law on Land Reform, which permitted land to be bequeathed as an inheritance from one generation to the next, but not to be bought or sold. The government also established the State Committee for Agrarian Reform, whose responsibility was to oversee the transfer of available land to private farming.
The main thrust of Yeltsin's agricultural reform has been toward reorganizing state and collective farms into more efficient, market-oriented units. A decree of December 1991 and its subsequent amendments provided several options to state and collective farmers for the future structure of their farms. The decree required that farmers choose either to reorganize into joint-stock companies, cooperatives, or individual private farms, or to maintain their existing structure. Under the first two arrangements, workers would hold shares in the farms and be responsible for managing the enterprises. An individual farmer could later decide to break from the larger unit and establish private ownership of his or her share of the land, as determined by an established procedure.
This restructuring program has progressed slowly. Although 95 percent of the state and collective farms underwent some form of reorganization, about one-third of them retained essentially their earlier structure. Most of the others, fearing the unstable conditions of market supply and demand that faced individual entrepreneurs, chose a form of collective ownership, either as joint-stock companies or as cooperatives. The conservatism of Russia's farmers prompted them to preserve as much as possible of the inefficient but secure Soviet-era controlled relationships of supply and output.
As of 1996, individual private farming had not assumed the significance in Russian agriculture that reformers and Western supporters had envisioned. Although the number of private farms increased considerably following the reforms of 1990, by the early 1990s the growth of farms had stalled, and by the mid-1990s the number of private farms actually may have dropped as some individuals opted to return to a form of cooperative enterprise or left farming entirely. By the end of 1995, Russia's 280,000 private farms accounted for only 5 percent of the arable land in Russia.
A number of factors have contributed to the slow progress of agricultural reform. Until the mid-1990s, the state government continued to act as the chief marketing agent for the food sector by establishing fixed orders for goods, thus guaranteeing farmers a market. The government also subsidized farms through guaranteed prices, which reduced the incentive of farmers to become efficient producers.
Perhaps most important, effective land reform has not been accomplished in Russia. The original land reform law and subsequent decrees did not provide a clear definition of private property, and they did not prescribe landholders' rights and protections. The nebulous status of private landholders under the new legislation made farmers reluctant to take the risk of proprietorship. In March 1996, President Yeltsin issued a decree that allows farmers to buy and sell land. However, in April 1996 the State Duma, heavily influenced by the antireform KPRF and its ally, the Agrarian Party of Russia (representing the still formidable vested interests of collective and state farms), passed a draft law that prohibits land sales by anyone but the state. Recent opposition to the new notion of private landownership is based in a strong traditional Russian view that land must be held as collective rather than individual property.
However, in 1996 several factors were exerting pressure on the agricultural sector to become commercially viable. The federal government has retreated from its role as a guaranteed purchaser and marketer, although some regional governments are stepping in to fill the role. And private markets are emerging slowly. Increasingly, Russian agricultural production must compete with imported goods as the gap between domestic prices and world prices narrows. In addition, the fiscal position of the federal government has forced it to reduce subsidies to many sectors of the economy, including agriculture. Subsidies are among the targets of major budget cuts to comply with the standards of the IMF and other Western lenders and achieve macroeconomic stabilization.