MPs kick up a stink over farmland sales

  • 2002-01-31
  • Rokas M. Tracevskis
VILNIUS - After tensions emerged within the Social Democrat wing of Lithuania's government, Lithuanian lawmakers have postponed amending the constitution and legislation in order to liberalize the sale of farmland to foreigners.

When the government and right-wingers failed to reach agreement, a vote on requesting a transition period in accession negotiations with the European Union, which was due to take place Jan. 25, was postponed until the spring.

The postponement meant a planned demonstration outside Parliament by some 2,000 farmers was canceled.

Requesting such a period would mean reopening the already closed negotiation chapter on the free movement of capital.

"We need to consider if such a transitional period is good for our country. I don't think that it would be a tragedy to renegotiate this chapter," said Petras Austrevicius, Lithuania's chief accession negotiator.

The parliamentary commission for constitutional amendments decided on Jan. 24 to postpone debating the amendments to the constitution and the so called protection law until an extraordinary parliamentary session on Feb. 28.

The current protection law forbids sale of farmland to foreigners not intending to live or base themselves in the country and was based on similar laws in Denmark and some other EU countries.

But while it has the support of right-wingers, MPs presenting themselves as protectors of farmers' interests are dissatisfied.

Ramunas Karbauskis and other "agrarian MPs" object to EU plans to give Lithuanian farmers only 25 percent of the support received by farmers in the existing member states.

Lithuanians, they say, should have the opportunity to buy agricultural land without competition from wealthier foreigners.

The majority of EU candidates have requested transition periods on sale of land to foreigners in response to which Spain, the current holder of the EU's rotating presidency, has suggested such countries be granted five-year transition periods.

Neighboring Poland is demanding an 18-year transition period.

In the sitting of the parliamentary commission for constitutional amendments "agrarian MPs" from various parliamentary factions called for a seven-year transition period, while leaders of the ruling Social Democratic coalition faction suggested a transition period but without indicating the duration.

Opposition factions refused to participate in the vote unless the ruling majority dropped its less radical proposals.

Dissent is coming from within the Social Democrats, where Parliamentary Vice Chairman Vytenis Andriukaitis and his followers are openly challenging Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas on the issue.

"We need a decision by Parliament which would enable our government to negotiate about a five-, seven-, or nine-year transition period on farmland sales to foreigners," said Andriukaitis

Andriukaitis' challenge was condemned by Eugenijus Gentvilas, leader of the opposition right-wing Liberal Union.

"Andriukaitis' proposition is ruining consensus on the issue which was reached by the ruling factions and opposition," he said after attending a meeting of the rightist opposition leaders and Brazauskas on Jan. 23.

Ironically the position taken by Andriukaitis, a Brezhnev-era dissident and former political prisoner, is much further to the left than that taken by Brazauskas, who as well as being prime minister is leader of the Social Democrats.

In January Brazauskas said there was no need for any transitional period regarding farmland sales to foreigners.

At a Social Democrat party meeting on Jan. 25 Brazauskas was accused of being too close to rightist opposition parties on many issues, a claim which is justified, according to Lina Peceliuniene, a political commentator associated with the right.