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Free Land in Russia's Far East

Oct. 12, 2016

The Russian government is trying out a new plan to revitalize its Far East region -- giving away land in the hope that the new owners will make the most of their free plots.

Russia's Far East makes up a third of the world's largest country and developing the vast, resource-rich region has long been a top priority.

But its population has dropped by a quarter since the Soviet Union's breakup. The government ended certain incentives to live in the region, like salaries 3-times higher than in Moscow and many residents, especially the young, have left to find work elsewhere.

In a bid to revitalize the area, President Vladimir Putin will try giving away rugby-field-size plots of land. Current residents of the Far East are first in line for these 1-hectare parcels.

Putin used a trip to Vladivostok to announce his bold plan -- a policy to accelerate the development of the Far East region.

"We will offer 1 hectare of free land in the Far East to each Russian citizen," Putin said. "I will ask for the rapid preparation of a bill and approval of Parliament."

Eight months later, Russian lawmakers put Putin's initiative into action, passing the Far East One Hectare Law.

"Following the enactment of the Far East One Hectare Law, all Russian citizens will be able to receive 1 hectare of land in the Far East free of charge," a promotional video says.

To start with, the free land is technically on loan. The law says if it's put to effective use, the holder can take full ownership after 5 years.

Land allocations have already begun in pilot regions. Current residents of the Far East have first choice. Applicants can make their request online. They scan the map and click on the plot of land they are interested in.

"We hope this land will become farmland, and people will start cultivating it to generate agricultural products. If we produce safe, high-quality goods, they could be exported to countries in the Asia and Pacific region," says Grigory Smolyak, an official with the Ministry for the Development of the Russian Far East.

The program's success depends on how effectively the free land is used. The government selected Khanka, around 250 km north of Vladivostok, as one of the areas to pilot the scheme. Officials here received about 850 applications in the first month.

One of those applications came from beekeeper Victor Baranov. He keeps his hives on vacant land belonging to the village, but he wants his own property.

"It's very sweet honey, a good fragrance with a unique taste. It smells like a fig tree," Baranov says.

The Baranovs have been keeping bees for more than 20 years. Their bees pollinate flowers from a type of fig tree -- and they say it gives their honey a special taste.

Baranov filed a request for free land on the first day of applications. He chose a site not far away -- a 20-minute drive along a country road. The new landholders say it's perfect for beekeeping -- fig trees cover the area.

"The fig tree honey is our best seller. The taste is on a totally different level," Baranov says.

Baranov now has the land he always wanted and the future smells sweet for him and his wife.

But not everyone claiming land has concrete plans on how to use it. Vladimir Yejov built himself a second home in this region 10 years ago. Now he has filed a joint application with relatives, requesting a total of 11 hectares.

"People who want to succeed can grab their opportunity. The government is offering us land, why would you say no?" Yejov says.

He calls it the "opportunity of a lifetime" but he says he is in no hurry to exploit it.

"I'll take my time thinking about how to use the land. I've already put in my claim. Now I can work out how to use it to my advantage," he says.

But while aspiring landowners ponder the future, Khanka District officials seem to be having some problems.

"At the moment, many local residents are just filing applications to get hold of the land. They want it because it's free. If something is free, Russian people get hold of it while they can. They think they don't have to do anything with it for five years. I think they're taking the wrong approach," says Chief Administrator Vladimir Mishenko.

The Far East One Hectare Law is aimed at reversing population decline. It's hoped free land will encourage young people especially to migrate to the region. The government is organizing forums across Russia to explain the new law and how young people can benefit from it.

Journalist Ekaterina Tkachenko has been reporting on the land giveaway. She asks young people in Vladivostok to find out what they think of the new law.

"Young people are interested, but most of them don't have enough money to pay for a house -- you need millions of rubles. I don't think any young people have that kind of money, do they?" says one young woman.

Reviewing the complaints -- Tkachenko says a key problem with the law is the 5-year timeframe.

"It won’t be easy to get effective results within five years. The land is free, but it takes time and money to start producing something," she says.

Economist Zarina Fardzinova supports the one hectare law, but she says potential settlers in the Far East need more than free land.

"While legislators were drafting this law, an opinion poll indicated 30 million people are interested in moving to the Far East. And if just one-third of those people make the move, then the law will be a huge success in bringing development to this region," Fardzinova says.

"But these projects need various kinds of support. It's too much for one person to do. And these issues were discussed in the forums for young people. For people who want to move to the Far East, the infrastructure issue is extremely important," she says.

The Far East is a place for pioneers and free land is encouraging people to dream big. The region’s future prosperity will depend on how many other Russians decide to join them.

The application process will be open to all Russian citizens in February. The government expects this will spur the construction of housing, as well as new hotels and resorts.