How Agribusiness And Corruption Swallow Small Farmers In Russia

Millions of Russians were given plots of land when the former USSR collapsed. Now, as land rises in value, small farmers are the targets of intimidation of powerful forces.

Farmers in Yerban, Russia
Farmers in Yerban, Russia
Pierre Avril

KRASNODAR â€" Ljudmila Voltshenko, who appears to be in her 50s, points to her house's charred roof and beams. "Bandits set it on fire," she says.

For Voltshenko, bandits refers to Russian civil servants, judges and local landowners â€" people she accuses of helping themselves to the 190 acres she and her husband own in Starovelitchkovskaya, a rich farming village near the southwestern Russian city of Krasnodar.

The couple is not alone. Many farmers in the region are facing the same problem.

"Around here, the authorities protect the bandits and we've been fighting each other for 12 years," says Voltshenko's husband, Mikhail, a former driver in the region's kolkhoz, or collective farm, during the Soviet era.

Mikhail Voltshenko, like millions of other Russians, was given plots of land when the former USSR collapsed and used these areas to grow wheat, corn and sunflower. But in 2004, when he tried to make official his property title, Ljudmila, who worked at the kolkhoz's storehouse, was fired. And landowners sent henchmen to Voltshenko’s house to break his jaw.

The couple’s house and agricultural tools were torched. Five lawsuits were launched against Voltshenko, while his own complaints were rejected in court. "The prosecutor and the police are laughing at us. I know fully well who hit me, but when I told my story to the police, they started laughing," he says.

Recently, the couple’s son, Alexey, a former police officer who became a farmer, went to the Kremlin to present the family’s grievances to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"Every civil servant here behaves like a landowner and Putin doesn't know what's happening. If he decides to restore order, everything will be resolved," Voltshenko says.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, Alexey and other demonstrators were sentenced to a week in prison. Kremlin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, advised angry farmers to write a letter instead of protesting.

Demonstrations are rare in Russia. Regional media, including news agencies, keep quiet about them. "Voters aren't interested in these stories about farming and collusion in the legal system," says Sergey Obukhov, one of the 28 Communist candidates in the region. "They worry first about rising prices in shops."

Krasnodar, the third richest region in Russia after Moscow and St. Petersburg, is often described as the Russian Los Angeles because of its Mediterranean climate and easygoing way of life. The city’s proximity to the former Olympic capital Sochi, where Putin has a luxurious residence, made it eligible for budgetary largesse. Krasnodar’s fertile lands offer exceptional yields. A probable consequence of this natural wealth is that the pro-Kremlin party United Russia, which won the recent parliamentary elections, keeps a tight grip on the region.

Alexander Tkachev, Krasnodar’s former governor, was one of the main figures behind the successful and expensive 2014 Olympic Games. During the Soviet era, Tkachev’s father was the director of the kolkhoz named “friendship" in the village of Vysselki, 60 miles north of Krasnodar. The Tkachev family, who turned Vysselki into their personal fiefdom, became the largest owner of farmland in the region. The family’s company Agrocomplex owns 1.1 million acres. Tkachev’s brother, Alexey, a lawmaker, became the empire's head along with Tkachev’s daughter, wife and son-in-law.

"Tkachev built his power like a managerial project," says local activist Dmitri Shevchenko, whose ecology-focused NGO is on the justice ministry’s radar. Tkachev's system, Shevchenko says, "is characterized by extreme authoritarianism, the proscription of any alternative opinion and drastic control on the media."

In 2015, the Kremlin made Tkachev agriculture minister. At the same time, an investigation by the newspaper Vedomosti found that Tkachev’s farming empire had quadrupled in size since 2009. Last year, Tkachev got 1.1 billion rubles ($17 million) in federal subsidies.

Small independent farmers accuse Tkachev of being complicit in the land ownership problems they're facing. At the very least, they criticize Tkachev for inaction in mediating their disputes.

"These conflicts are linked to the growing value of land,” says Alexey Gusak, a United Russia deputy in Krasnodar’s legislative assembly. "Nobody cared about it 10 or 15 years ago. Back then, people would take whatever they wanted. After the collapse of the USSR, many people didn't know how to obtain their property titles and found themselves facing holding companies who owned the appropriate legal services and took advantage of the legal vacuum."

In November 2010, Alexey Tsapok, the leader of a criminal gang, killed 12 members of a local family in a property dispute. Several media outlets at the time accused the chairperson of the investigation committee and the attorney general of dragging out the investigation. Four years later, 40,000 hectares belonging to that criminal gang ended up with the Tkachev family through Agrocomplex. The transaction was approved by the Russian Antimonopoly Service.

Vladimir Chamchurov, who leads a group of small dispossessed farmers, says the ballot box won't resolve the problem. Chamchurov, who believes that judges, politicians and companies are all corrupt, says that he's lost confidence in the political system. "We don't believe in any candidate," he says.

Communist lawmaker Sergey Obukhov promises to take on the big players should his party return to power, an electoral prospect that looks unlikely.

Just outside Vysselki, Agrocomplex's sugar factory spits smoke. At the village's entrance, there are three United Russia campaign posters. One of them reads, "The growth of the agricultural industrial complex depends directly on those who work the land." Put against Agrocomplex's 12,000 employees, protestors trying to get to Kremlin to demonstrate don't stand a chance.

“Small farmers who accuse us are lazy," says Alexey Familsky, the person in charge of security at Agrocomplex. "If they wanted to work, they would make a very good living."

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Why This Sudan Coup Is Different

The military has seized control in one of Africa's largest countries, which until recently had made significant progress towards transitioning to democracy after years of strongman rule. But the people, and international community, may not be willing to turn back.

Smoke rises Monday over the Sudanese capital of Khartoum

Xinhua via ZUMA
David E. Kiwuwa

This week the head of Sudan's Sovereign Council, General Abdel Fattah El Burhan, declared the dissolution of the transitional council, which has been in place since the overthrow of former president Omar el-Bashir in 2019. He also disbanded all the structures that had been set up as part of the transitional roadmap, and decreed a state of emergency.

In essence, he staged a palace coup against the transitional authority he chaired.

The general's actions, which included the arrest of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, are a culmination of a long period of tension between the civilian and military wings of the council.

A popular uprising may be inevitable

The tensions were punctuated by an alleged attempted coup only weeks earlier. The days leading to the palace coup were marked by street protests for and against the military. Does this mark the end of the transition as envisaged by the protest movement?

Their ability to confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.

The popular uprising against Bashir's government was led by the Sudan Professional Association. It ushered in the political transitional union of civilians and the military establishment. The interim arrangement was to lead to a return to civilian rule.

But this cohabitation was tenuous from the start, given the oversized role of the military in the transition. Moreover, the military appeared to be reluctant to see the civilian leadership as an equal partner in shepherding through the transition.

Nevertheless, until recently there had been progress towards creating the institutional architecture for the transition. Despite the challenges and notable tension between the signatories to the accord, it was never evident that the dysfunction was so great as to herald the collapse of the transitional authority.

For now, the transition might be disrupted and in fact temporarily upended. But the lesson from Sudan is never to count the masses out of the equation. Their ability to mobilize and confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.

Power sharing

The transitional pact itself had been anchored by eight arduously negotiated protocols. These included regional autonomy, integration of the national army, revenue sharing and repatriation of internal refugees. There was also an agreement to share out positions in national political institutions, such as the legislative and executive branch.

Progress towards these goals was at different stages of implementation. More substantive progress was expected to follow after the end of the transition. This was due in 2022 when the chair of the sovereignty council handed over to a civilian leader. This military intervention is clearly self-serving and an opportunistic power grab.

A promised to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.

In November, the rotational chairmanship of the transitional council was to be passed from the military to the civilian wing of the council. That meant the military would cede strong leverage to the civilians. Instead, with the coup afoot, Burhan has announced both a dissolution of the council as well as the dismissal of provincial governors. He has unilaterally promised return to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.

Prior to this, the military had been systematically challenging the pre-eminence of the civilian authority. It undermined them and publicly berated them for governmental failures and weaknesses. For the last few months there has been a deliberate attempt to sharply criticize the civilian council as riddled with divisions, incompetent and undermining state stability.

File photo shows Sudan's Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in August 2020

Mohamed Khidir/Xinhua via ZUMA

Generals in suits

Since the revolution against Bashir's government, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council.

This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy. True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19.

Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse.

Demands of the revolution

The success or failure of this coup will rest on a number of factors.

First is the ability of the military to use force. This includes potential violent confrontation with the counter-coup forces. This will dictate the capacity of the military to change the terms of the transition.

Second is whether the military can harness popular public support in the same way that the Guinean or Egyptian militaries did. This appears to be a tall order, given that popular support appears to be far less forthcoming.

The international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin.

Third, the ability of the Sudanese masses to mobilize against military authorities cannot be overlooked. Massive nationwide street protests and defiance campaigns underpinned by underground organizational capabilities brought down governments in 1964, 1985 and 2019. They could once again present a stern test to the military.

Finally, the international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin. The ability of the military to overcome pressure from regional and international actors to return to the status quo could be decisive, given the international support needed to prop up the crippled economy.

The Sudanese population may have been growing frustrated with its civilian authority's ability to deliver on the demands of the revolution. But it is also true that another coup to reinstate military rule is not something the protesters believe would address the challenges they were facing.

Sudan has needed and will require compromise and principled political goodwill to realise a difficult transition. This will entail setbacks but undoubtedly military intervention in whatever guise is monumentally counterproductive to the aspirations of the protest movement.


David E. Kiwuwa is Associate Professor of International Studies at University of Nottingham

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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