As lawmakers prepared to vote on a contentious bill lifting a moratorium on farmland sales on Nov. 13, protesters gathered in front of Ukraine’s parliament.
They came bearing funeral wreaths and a coffin with a dead pig inside. The symbolism was clear: If you pass this bill, Ukrainian agriculture will die.
If that didn’t speak loudly enough, their placards read “No to sales of Ukrainian land,” “Land to the people, not the oligarchs” and “No to the sale of land to foreigners.”
Ukraine’s land sale ban has been in place for nearly 20 years. Now, with control over the government and a majority faction in parliament, President Zelensky is determined to push land reform advocated for by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank through the legislature.
But its opponents are also turning up the heat.
In the run-up to the parliamentary vote, political manipulations and disinformation proliferated online and on television aiming at people’s ties to the soil. Some of the false narratives have even played on age-old anti-Semitic stereotypes.
Since the land moratorium was imposed in 2001 as a temporary measure, the ban has been extended 10 times amid fiery patriotic speeches claiming Ukrainian land must not be sold. Politician Oleh Lyashko once even ate soil from a sack on the parliament’s tribune to make that case.
But this year is different.
On Nov. 13, the parliament passed a law lifting the ban in the first reading. Zelensky wants the law passed by year’s end. Once it is signed by the president, Ukrainians and Ukrainian companies will be able to buy and sell farmland starting in October 2020.
Ukrainian reformers and international lenders say a land market is necessary to unlock the potential of the country’s economy.
Still, the bill is hugely unpopular with the public. After coming under public pressure, Zelensky has agreed to make some concessions and amend the draft bill before the next vote.
In particular, he will allow the public to decide whether foreigners and companies with foreign capital should be able to own land in Ukraine through a people’s referendum.
Currently, 69% of Ukrainians are against allowing foreigners to buy land. Even among the 30% who support lifting the moratorium, half are against allowing foreigners to participate.
Attitudes toward lifting the land moratorium have long been negative. But this is not entirely a natural phenomenon. Often, politicians and lobbying groups have fanned the flames of opposition.
As soon as President Zelensky presented his plan for land reform in late September, television and social media were inundated with scaremongering counter-propaganda claiming that Ukrainians would soon lose the land of their ancestors to corporations and oligarchs. Ultimately, the claims went, Ukraine would cease to exist as a nation.
Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who leads the populist Batkivshchyna party, claimed on that “we will be slaves and hired workers in our native land” and “Ukraine will become a third world country.”
Members of the pro-Russian For Life party pronounced that “selling land is like selling your mother” and that the IMF and George Soros “want to grab our land.”
He was referring to an unholy duo of Ukraine’s main donor and the Hungarian-American financier and philanthropist whose alleged influence is a centerpiece of many an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory.
Other claims dipped deep into the well of national memory, drawing parallels with Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s attempts to take over Ukrainian territory by starving the population and Nazi soldiers hauling wagons of Ukraine’s fertile black soil — the ‘chernozem’ — to Germany during World War II.
Alyona Romanyuk, a media expert with the Regional Press Development Institute who studies manipulations in the Ukrainian media, said the public discourse on land reform has been characterized by attempts to intimidate the public and shifting public attention away from important aspects of the issue.
“Politicians omit logical arguments and facts and appeal to emotions, and the media broadcast it,” she told the Kyiv Post.
While the narratives make it appear that land reform will cause Ukrainians to lose their land, there is little mention of legal protections and — most important — the fact that no one will force people to sell their land.
This year, for the first time in Ukraine’s history, social media overtook television as the main source of news for Ukrainians, according to an October survey by Internews. Naturally, disinformation has flourished there.
“Stop Ze Evil. They will sell 70 percent of Ukrainian territory to foreigners and latifundists,” read one image shared by a Facebook page with 100,000 followers.
“The Israeli Knesset allocated $84 billion for buying Ukrainian land,” another Facebook post claimed. It was shared over 3,000 times but has now been deleted.
Romanyuk calls these memes recurring fakes that appear whenever the debate on land reform starts. They are spread through social media and what she terms “garbage” websites and pushed by trolls.
Anti-Semitism has also crept into opposition to land reform — particularly because Zelensky is Jewish.
Speaking at a rally in front of parliament, Andriy Biletsky, leader of the far-right National Corps party, claimed that “Zelensky is hiding behind a George Soros mask” and “companies of the Rothschilds and Soros have already lined up to buy Ukrainian land.”
Biletskiy has also linked the land reform to Zelensky’s peace plan for Donbas, presenting two unrelated policies as a broad effort to sell out Ukraine and capitulate with Russia.
Other theories forward the idea that Zelensky is implementing “Israel’s secret plan” or aiding billionaires like Soros and oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky — both Jewish, combining a standard conspiracy theory with real concerns that Kolomoisky influences the president, his former business partner.
Ukraine has the largest area of arable land in Europe: 33 to 37 million hectares. That’s more than that of France and Germany combined, but Ukrainian land’s productivity remains the lowest in the region.
Ukraine is among six countries in the world that ban land sales — a club that includes North Korea, Tajikistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Venezuela and Cuba. But a de-facto gray market exists, with land leased for 49 years at lower prices than the open market would generate, the government said.
For the second year in a row, Ukraine is harvesting record levels of grain crops. But the trend will not last, the World Bank warns, pointing out that economic growth requires more capital investment, which Ukraine lacks.
Supporters of the reforms believe it will be an enormous boon for the country’s agricultural sector.
Kyiv resident Yaroslav Mazurok, 30, inherited two land plots totaling 6.1 hectares from his parents who, like seven million Ukrainians, received them during the disintegration of collective farms after the Soviet Union collapsed. He rents out each of his plots for Hr 10,000 ($415) a year.
“People are given an opportunity to sell their land. Nobody forces them to do so,” he told the Kyiv Post. “I would consider selling my plots if the market price is at least $5,000 per hectare.”
But lifting the ban is only the first step, the World Bank notes. The government also has to develop transparent land records to eliminate opportunities for fraudulent transactions and illegal changes of ownership records.
Small farmers have also opposed the open land market because they cannot afford to buy land and have taken advantage of low rents under the old system. Due to the moratorium, land could not be used as collateral. Moreover, banks have ignored farmers with fewer than 500 hectares, and state subsidies have targeted large and influential agricultural producers.
This has to change too, says Faruk Khan, lead economist for the World Bank in Ukraine. The government’s five-year partial credit guarantee program can help kickstart lending to small farmers.
“The whole point of opening the agricultural land market is to enable the flow of private credit and enable banks to lend to small farmers,” said Khan. “Most of the financing to farmers will come not from the government but from commercial banks.”
The World Bank estimates that a transparent and efficient land market can boost economic growth by up to 1.5% over five years.
Small farmers’ fears
Mikhail Sokolov calls this a myth. He is deputy director of the Ukrainian Agrarian Council, which lobbies the interests of some 700 small and medium-sized farm owners.
“Farmers will be able to take out loans secured on land only when they own it. Where will they get money to buy land? They are cut off from bank loans,” he told the Kyiv Post.
Small farmers feel the government prioritizes the interests of large agroholdings and landowners. They support land sale but only with safeguards such as a transparent land registry and legislation to protect them from illegal land seizure, Sokolov said.
Members of his association have also held nationwide protests demanding that the government ban farmland sales to companies with foreign ownership or capital. They also want to limit ownership to 5,000 hectares per person or entity. The current draft bill proposes a limit of 200,000 hectares.
“We believe the open land market should enable the development of small and medium-sized farms, not agroholdings that have access to borrowing abroad,” he told the Kyiv Post.
Sokolov believes that the “foreigners” buying up Ukrainian land will be Ukrainian agroholdings with entities abroad. The land, he said, should be the property of those who cultivate it.
“Farmers want to invest in their own land.”