Foreign landowners not welcome

  • 2002-01-10
  • Kairi Kurm
TALLINN - A survey conducted by the ES Turu-Uuringute research company shows that two-thirds of Estonian residents would ban or limit the sale of land to foreign residents.

Out of the 950 people questionned 43 percent would ban the sale of any kind of land, 26 percent would ban only the sale of agricultural or forest land and 2 percent the sale of real estate plots, while 18 percent support the sale of land to foreigners.

The survey shows that every third person aged 15 to 33 and every second one over 50 would ban the sale of land to foreigners. The biggest nationalists are among less educated people with smaller incomes living in rural areas. The supporters of land sale to foreigners are mostly wealthy and educated.

One-third of the people questionned were non-Estonians (non-citizens and foreigners living in Estonia). The percentage of non-Estonians speaking in favor of the ban of land sales to foreigners was smaller, 38 percent compared to 46 percent among Estonians. Twenty-four percent of the non-residents would withdraw all limitations, while the respective figure among Estonians was 15 percent.

At present foreigners can buy building sites under the same conditions as local residents. In order to buy forest land or agricultural land they have to send a petition to the governor of a province.

The sale of land on smaller islands or along the Estonian boundary is prohibited. Permission granted by the Estonian government is necessary for acquiring these lands, said Karin Madisson, layer at Sorainen law office.

Foreigners need the government's permission if they want to get the right to use the land near the Estonian border for longer than 10 years or purchase real estate there. Once a foreigner has acquired real estate (not near the border) it is possible to obtain the property without the government's permission.

With a company registered in Estonia foreigners have no restrictions for obtaining land. The government's permission is then required only when land is obtained near the border.

"Since foreigners can easily establish companies in Estonia and companies do not need a governor's permission for purchasing land, they very often buy land through companies," said Madisson. She said that foreigners living in Estonia or planning a business in Estonia very often turned to their office with the wish to buy land.

"We find that there should be no restrictions on the sale of land to foreigners like it is common in developed European countries," she said. "The present legislation does not give much opportunities for the state to control or limit the sale of land and thus does not fulfil its goal. The restrictions bring along the use of intermediaries and creates a shadow economy, which is not normal in developed countries. Permitting the sale of land would foster investments, create jobs and improve general wealth."

It is very difficult to define how much land belongs to foreigners, because the owners are not registered according to their nationality, said Urmas Glase, spokesman for the Ministry of Environment. Most foreigners trade through intermediaries, he said.

According to his estimations the share of land sold to foreigners is about 3 percent. The island of Saaremaa is the biggest attraction, especially among Finnish citizens. The other popular region purchased is Ida-Virumaa county, which is inhabited by Russian speaking non-citizens. Ida-Virumaa county is the most northeastern county of Estonia surrounded by the Gulf of Finland in the north, Lake Peipsi in the south and the Narva River together with the Estonian-Russian border in the east.

Estonia's accession to the European Union would at once abolish all restrictions on foreign residents. Several politicians believe a transitional period delaying the implementation of the freedom of land sales is necessary.

Evelin Sepp, spokesman for the opposition Center Party, said that Estonia needed a transition period since Estonian farmers have yet not reached a required profitability and competitiveness compared to EU countries and they should be given a chance to buy their land. She said that Estonian agricultural land was 30 times cheaper than in Europe.

Mart Nutt from the ruling Pro Patria Union said "Estonians want to limit the sales of coastal area rather than agricultural area, because their purchasing power is considerably smaller than this of neighboring citizens. Estonians are in an unequal condition."

He said that Estonians wanted equal realistic opportunities and it was not protectionism or hatred behind the desire of imposing restrictions.

"In this respect the legislation has to be overviewed and a transition period established for the sale of certain land," said Nutt. "At the same time I should admit that administrative restrictions do not offer enough protection because it is not possible to hinder the privatization of land through intermediaries."

Nutt said that the above mentioned restrictions should not hinder the flow of investments or the activities of foreigners whose business is useful for Estonian agriculture and creates jobs. Estonia has acknowledged the freedom of land purchase that is common in the European Union countries and retreating from this position would be unjustified, he said.

Arnold Ruutel had, according to daily Postimees, said before he was elected president of Estonia that the sale of land should be hindered for at least 10 years because the preservation of landed property was the precondition for the existence of Estonia as a nation state. A week ago he told the Estonian dailies that he had been misunderstood. "I meant that we should fight against the speculators who purchase dozens of hectares of land in order to resell it," Postimees quoted him. He said that the adoption of the bill which regulated the sales of land to foreigners should have been postponed for a few years.