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A burning issue in Siberia

Farm workers in the Omsk region, cheated out of their land by big business, have taken their cases to the courts; and taken the matter into their own hands… на русском языке

Georgy Borodyansky
13 May 2014

On 14 April, about 300 shareholders in Market Gardener Ltd, a company they thought they owned, most of them elderly and shabbily dressed, with distinctively ‘Soviet’ faces, and outdated ideas about honesty, gathered outside the offices of Sibagrokholding, the company that now owns the land allocated to them by the Russian government in the 1990s. They had come together to burn an effigy of the man who cheated them, Andrei Golushko, a Senator and member of United Russia, who was the Omsk region’s First Deputy Governor in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the years that marked the start of the wholesale dispossession of the rural population.

A common story

These elderly people, like most villagers who, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, were given land that had previously belonged to the state or the collective farms where they worked, had never actually seen their individual smallholdings. The 2500 hectares that made up the farm were difficult to split up neatly, and for the 1300 shareholders to each get their two hectare share they would have had to all get together, hire surveyors and mark out the boundaries on the ground, while ensuring that everyone was satisfied with their allocated plot. In other words, they would have had to achieve the impossible. This process, which should have been taking place all over Russia, has never been carried out properly, not only in the Omsk region but anywhere in the country.

The old farm workers had never seen the smallholdings they had officially been given when the state farm was privatised.

Moreover, the state, as represented by officials from the Ministry of Agriculture and the local and regional authorities, never explained to the rural populace about their land rights, in fact they kept this information a secret.

 Ilya Petrov

Dispossessed farm workers preparing to burn an effigy of Andrei Golushko. Photo: Ilya Petrov

The story of how the ‘market gardeners’ were cheated out of their land is common enough. The management of the private company that was once the ‘60 Years of the USSR’ state farm, persuaded the locals to hand over their individual land shares to the collective equity fund, promising them a good and stable income from it. But somehow the payment of dividends was postponed from year to year, to better times that never arrived.

Then ‘investors’ arrived (most of them members of the company’s management) claiming that the company owed them a large sum of money.

Then ‘investors’ arrived (most of them members of the company’s management) claiming that the company owed them a large sum of money.

The village shareholders, as is clear from the suits they have filed with the public prosecutor’s office and the regional office of the Ministry of the Interior, had no inkling of the existence of these ‘investors,’ and the investigation of the case has shown that the company in fact had no debts.

At the end of the 2000s, however, Market Gardener Ltd was declared bankrupt and sold for its 62 million rouble [just over 1,000,000 GBP] fictitious debt. It also turned out that neither the land nor anything standing on it (boiler houses, greenhouses, vegetable stores, outbuildings and so on) belonged to the shareholders, and nor did anything that moved on it – apart, of course, from their own two feet. Everything had been transferred to Sibagrokholding, which in its turn was acquired by a company called Aktsia. All of the land given by the state to the former state farm workers was now owned by Aktsia’s founders, Senator Andrei Golushko and Sergei Kalinin, a member of the Omsk Regional Legislative Assembly; and both men represent the governing party of United Russia.

The ‘burning action’

This is the background to the burning in effigy. Dressed in a suit and tie, the effigy was set up just outside the building of Sibagrokholding, ready for burning. The ‘senator’s’ outfit was in modest, Soviet style, reminiscent perhaps of the suit he wore when he was Secretary of the local Komsomol [Communist Youth Organisation], and inspired people with the fervour of his belief in the then system. But a quarter century has long since wiped the Soviet look from his face, which is now deeply suntanned, burnished by the glare of the Alpine ski-slopes he favours.

 Ilya Petrov

14 April 2014 saw 300 shareholders in Market Gardener Ltd turn out in force to witness the burning. Photo: Ilya Petrov.

The last quarter century has wiped the Soviet look from his face, which is deeply burnished by the breezes of Alpine ski-slopes

If the Soviet Union had survived, who knows how high Comrade Golushko might have soared: his might have been one of the faces gracing the placards carried high during the patriotic 1 May and 7 November processions.

The turning point

The organiser of the ‘burning action,’ Rinat Karymov, head of Omsk’s Social and Legal Rights Centre who is representing the ‘market gardeners’ in court, once again informed them of their rights: the law has long been on their side – they haven’t, after all, received a single dividend due to them in all the 20 years since their farm was privatised. ‘And our wages were miserly as well’, said former farm worker Galina Bavrina, standing next to me in the crowd.

‘When they tell you that the business was in the red,’ Karymov told the shareholders, ‘and that it was trading at a loss all those years, don’t believe them. The farm was bringing in a good profit – just none of it was coming to you.’

According to the rights campaigners, Sibagrokholding is the largest agricultural business east of the Urals. Senator Golushko recently told journalists that his company Aktsia acquired the company in good faith – a claim now being investigated by the regional office of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

Senator Golushko recently told journalists that his company Aktsia acquired the company in good faith

The turning point in the story, Rinat Karymov told me, came five months ago: ‘The Cheated Shareholders’ Committee (now 850-strong) finally succeeded, in a victory for activism, in instituting proceedings against Sibagrokholding, on a charge of large scale fraud.’

According to Karymov, the Social and Legal Rights Centre has put the total value of the land and property stolen from the ‘market gardeners’ at nine billion roubles [150 million GBP], or 6 million [100,000 GBP] per shareholder. On 16 April the first 300 suits were filed, against the holding company Aktsia; there are another 500 to follow.

Karymov believes all the shareholders will win their cases, but if not he is ready to take them to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasburg.

Class action lawsuits

If these shareholders win their case, the doors will be wide open for others to follow. For example, about five hundred former employees of the Goncharov State Farm (also in the Omsk region), which was privatised in 1993, have been sending collective letters to the authorities, and even Vladimir Putin himself for more than seven years. They claim that company management falsified the list of shareholders and illegally transferred their land shares to a collective equity fund. Three years ago the company declared itself bankrupt, further worsening the situation of the dying village of Goncharovskaya (home to twenty families), and in the hamlet of Vesyolaya Roshcha [ironically, the name means ‘happy woods’] where the unemployment rate is 100%.

 Ilya Petrov

Senator Andrei Golushko’s 'ashes' spread across the land he had acquired in good faith. Photo: Ilya Petrov

Two weeks later the ‘junk’ (tractors, combines etc.) written off as scrap, was working perfectly again, the property of a new company

It was a similar story for the Zhelanny agricultural cooperative, one of the Omsk Region’s most productive businesses, with the largest grain harvests. The deputy heads of the district council signed a document writing off all its technical equipment – cars, tractors, combines etc., and yet two weeks later all this ‘junk’, written off at scrap prices, was working like new again, registered as the property of a new company, to which the cooperative’s buildings, equipment, farm animals and, finally, land, were transferred, over the next year.

The crooks received 67 million roubles worth of credit [1,100,000 GBP], which the bank is unlikely to ever see again, against the value of this property. The six hundred odd members of the cooperative were left with two rickety sheds. Pyotr Golman, who organised the whole thing, was let off with a five year suspended sentence, and no one else has received any punishment whatsoever.

A country full of ‘foreign agents’

‘We decided to burn an effigy of someone that looked like the senator,’ said Rinat Karymov, ‘to show that we’re serious’. Their moral right to do this, according to the lawyer, arises from the fact that Golyshko, according to the Rights Centre, is a ‘foreign agent’ – he has, Karymov points out, a villa in France and property in Germany as well.

Russia these days has plenty of ‘foreign agents’

Russia these days has plenty of ‘foreign agents.’ They fall into two categories: there are those, like the senator, who have villas and bank accounts in other countries, yet are officially regarded as good Russian patriots; and then there are those who have no assets abroad, and few at home either, but who have been given the label of ‘foreign agent’ because they fight for the rights of ordinary people, such as these farm workers.

A corrupt politician’s ‘demise’

At the burning, there was just a dozen or so police officers observing the gathering, and they looked on quietly and benignly. One politely asked Karymov not to go ahead with the burning, which could be a danger to people in the crowd, and would also pollute the local environment. The lawyer replied that he was ready to accept the appropriate fine for his action.

The protesters laid the ‘senator’s body’ on the asphalt, poured inflammable liquid on it and set it alight, to the delight of the villagers. Outwardly orthodox, the people of the Siberian backwoods still have something of the pagan about them; they enjoy committing big shots to the flames, if only in their imagination. They watched as the wind blew the ‘senator’s’ ashes across the land he had acquired in such good faith.  

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