The pitchforks are coming

Farm workers in the depths of southern Russia are hardly a protest constituency, but corruption and corporate raids have pushed them to the brink. They may even take their grievances to Moscow — by tractor. Русский

Svetlana Bolotnikova
5 April 2016

Aleksei Volchenko, 37, is a farmer in Kalininsky district, in the Kuban area of southern Russia. There are no large cities or towns here, just stanitsy, Cossack villages. Residents either work their own farms or for big agricultural holdings, which emerged after the old collective farms vanished. 


A combine harvester collects soy in the fields of the Kuban Agrocombine company. Ust-Labinsk District, Krasnodar Region. Photo (c): Vitaly Timkiv / visual RIAN. All rights reserved.

In 2007, for instance, in Starovelichkovskaya, a stanitsa in Volchenko’s region, the October collective farm was replaced by a new company belonging to Oleg Makarevich, a prominent businessman in the region. Out of a 13,000 strong settlement, roughly 2,000 people work for Makarevich. Workers lease their land to the company. Several dozen farmers and individual businessmen decided to work for themselves, taking their land and leasing plots from other former collective farm workers. Aleksei, a strong man with working hands, is too young to own his own plot. It was his parents and grandparents who received the land. With help from his parents, Aleksei began to grow potatoes.

Complications soon arose. Oleg Makarevich bought the common roads that ran through the fields and closed off access to other people’s land, forcing the farmers to close their business and local residents to lease their plots to his company. 

With rich soil and a warm climate, land in the Kuban basin is worth its weight in gold. When oil prices began to fall in 2014, the agriculture business became more profitable than the hydrocarbon industry. As a result, big agricultural firms are trying to squeeze out small business owners. 

This campaign frequently takes on a criminal character. Lease agreements with former collective farmers and their families are forged. Police investigators, judges and judicial officials are bribed. Before the harvest, bigger companies, well-defended by private security, seize fields sown by small farmers.

A gruesome mass killing in Kushchevskaya in 2010, in which 12 people were murdered, the demands of Kuban farmers that governor Tkachev resign — these are all parts of a bigger story: how big agribusiness are waging war against small farmers with the support of the Russian authorities. 

Protest by tractor

Aleksei Volchenko and his father have been attacked twice, and people have tried to burn down their house. The farmers protested and contacted all the relevant authorities. They even have a court decision in favour of the stanitsa’s residents, though it was never carried out.

“This is what the court officials should be doing, this is their direct responsibility,” Aleksei tells me. On 24 March, around 100 famers from the Krasnodar region announced a protest rally by tractor to Moscow.

“People went out into the fields on their tractors to work, but they weren’t let through. Suddenly, there were gates and guards. I wanted to get to my field, but the road was closed, and a deep ditch runs around it. How can I get through? I can’t work my land, it’s going to get out of control, and then, according to the law, they can take it away from me. This kind of land problem exists all across Russia. It’s just that some places they’re decided in a more civilized manner, some places – not at all. And because of the situation in Krasnodar, farmers have come together for a motor rally. We wanted to get in touch with the federal authorities, to make them help us.”

But the march on Moscow, which was supposed to take place at the end of April, has been postponed. 

“People went into the fields on their tractors to work, but they weren’t let through. Suddenly, there were gates and guards”

“We’ve been heard without the rally,” Volchenko explains. “Representatives of the All-Russian People’s Front came to see us from Moscow, as well as the local authorities from Krasnodar. They promised us they’d sort out all the problems. And they didn’t just promise. In one region, they even sorted it out. A commission went to Novopokrovsky district today. And the vice-governor visited our Kalininsky district, and the problem has moved from its former stand-still.”

In for the long-haul 

Roughly 100 Kuban farmers planned to take part in the motor rally. Agricultural producers from Rostov, Moscow and Voronezh also planned to take part. This would have certainly led to large traffic jams on the highway from Kuban to Russia’s capital. (After all, tractors are hardly the fastest form of transport, and overtaking a column of them on a three-lane highway wouldn’t be easy.)

However, the authorities have already insured themselves against this kind of action. At the beginning of March, Vladimir Putin signed a new law that made motor rallies equal to mass demonstrations, and thus requiring, just like demonstrations, processions and pickets, the approval of the authorities. The farmers were threatened with a fine of up to 300,000 roubles (£3,000) for holding an illegal rally, and if it was proven that the farmers had acted as legal individuals, then the fine would have risen to a million roubles (£10,200). 

The Duma passed these amendments following the long-distance truckers’ protest march which converged on Moscow last December. The truckers were protesting against the payment system introduced by the Russian government to compensate for the damage they cause to federal roads through overloaded rigs. 


Photo (c): Grigory Sysoev / visual RIAN. All rights reserved.

As it turned out, it wasn’t so much the attempt to protect the highways that brought the truckers out onto the streets, but the fact that the online payment system belongs to the son of Arkady Rotenberg, a close associate of Vladimir Putin. In November 2015, long-distance truckers were made to register on the Platon toll tax system, which would charge them a premium per kilometre. This led to large protests on Russia’s motorways. People were confident that the business owners would find the necessary loopholes to ensure billions of roubles of fines would end up in their pockets. After all, the company in question, RT-Invest, did find a way to get this public contract outside the usual tender process.

In the end, not all the truckers made it to Moscow. The police stopped many of them on the way, fined them and took away their licenses. The blockade of the capital was thus prevented. But the idea itself made a deep impression on the government. Afraid of mass protests, the authorities decreased the fine for overloading by ten times. 

The farmers of the Kuban, who were preparing to repeat the trucker’s march on Moscow, had to agree the route of their protest. The security services were informed about the plans and took preventative measures: several days before the action, FSB officers warned Aleksei Volchenko that the protest would be stopped at the very start of the route, in Labinsk. “They’d either intercept us on the road, or detain and lock us up before the start,” this is how Volchenko paraphrased the FSB’s threats. 

But the farmers did not intend to retreat until inspectors from the General Prosecutor’s Office, Supreme Court and government arrived in the Kuban. 

A few hours before the protest was due to start, the farmers’ resolve foundered. At a meeting in the town of Armavir, they were persuaded not to protest, but to join a working group to study conflict situations with land in the Kuban region. 

Unlikely dissidents

Farm workers in the depths of the Russian regions are hardly a protest constituency. By and large, they support Putin on foreign policy, and the domestic path towards food security and independence.

The majority of them were happy to see the August 2014 ban on importing foodstuffs from countries that applied sanctions against Russia. After all, this move freed up space in the domestic market for Russian produce. Likewise, the state began to pay more attention to rural communities, activating the fragmented support of agricultural producers, subsidising credits and permitting infrastructure expenditure in several spheres.


Krasnodar Region, southern Russia. Photo CC: GeNiK/ Shutterstock. Some rights reserved.

So if radical ideas have emerged even among this group, it means the level of corruption has exceeded all believable limits. Yet the farmers’ hopes that Putin, on learning the truth, will send trustworthy investigators from Moscow to sort out these problem signals a malfunction in the system.

“We were told that Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, the president of our country, personally expressed interest in this protest, and that there is an order to fix it,” explained Anton Konovalov, a farmer from the Kanevsky district. 

“We hope that the authorities will help us. The All-Russian National Front has gotten involved. And the leader of the front is our president, who is very well respected here in the Kuban,” another farmer, Andrei Ovechkin, told me. 

The organisation was founded in 2011, as a broader means to link the ruling United Russia party with Russian society. It could be described as a GONGO (government-organised NGO), and true to form, Putin was elected as its president in 2013.

If the All-Russian National Front was created to address the “concerns of ordinary Russian people”, then this would be an ideal case for the organisation to prove its worth.

Or so it would seem.

Harvest time

In fact, the scale of these problems is such that you can’t solve them with an order from above.

The majority of unjust decisions in the eyes of the farmers were either read out in the courts in the name of the Russian Federation or just decisions were stopped at the stage of implementation. How can you fix all of this in the single month which Krasnodar’s minister of agriculture has assigned for these problems? 

Farmer Anton Konovalov, 30, has been fighting for his fishing business for a decade. His parents bought it, but the previous owners have done everything to disrupt it and get it back. “We, the owners, are trying to preserve the business as an asset,” Konovalov told me, “but the creditors are using legal means to prevent us from doing so.”

“There’s criminal cases in our situation, and arbitration decisions, which were taken on the basis of false information. GazpromtransgazKrasnodar (a subsidiary of gas company Gazprom responsible for transporting natural gas throughout the region) is pressuring the investigation and prosecutor’s office. That company presents the situation as if it’s a fight for the interests of the state, but actually it’s the personal interests of a single manager who wants to put individual holiday homes, places for hunting and fishing there instead of a collective farm or fishing business. We need the residents of the farm next door to be guaranteed work.”

Screen Shot 2016-04-01 at 10.jpg

The farmers of the Kuban stress that they have not called off their protest, but simply delayed it unless their problems are addressed. Image still via GTRK Kuban. ГТРК «Кубань».

Andrei Ovechkin, 40, has had problems in the courts, too. Roughly 70 land owners from the stanitsa Upornaya, near Labinsk, are represented in his case. “We have concerns about the judicial system. I can’t take money to court, I don’t think justice should require it. But we have a judge here in Labinsk who passes super-interesting decisions. Now a bankruptcy claimant who is liquidating his assets has filed against me. And I’m more than confidant that the judge will take his side.

“That judge destroyed other parts of our land, and it went to another bankruptcy claimant. The Kanesky agriholding gets the profits. A sister firm and the debtor have a lease agreement for 100,000 roubles per year for 4,800 hectares,” Ovechkin told me.

“These machinations are based on loans and bankruptcy claims. The land user goes to the bank with a lease agreement for 11 years, gets a loan and then declares himself bankrupt. The bank serves a claim, and the land and the equipment isn’t counted. There’s only a stamp left.” 

The pitchforks are coming 

Kuban’s farmers have made numerous appeals to the authorities, including requesting the resignation of Aleksandr Tkachev, Krasnodar’s former governor who became Russia’s minister of agriculture in April 2015. 

The Tkachev family business also has a dark history. Agrocomplex, an agricultural business, was allegedly involved in hostile takeovers of nearby farms in the 1990s. 


28 May 2015: Vladimir Putin holds a working meeting with Minister of Agriculture Aleksandr Tkachev, discussing state support for agribusiness and access to credits for agricultural producers. Source: Kremlin.ru

The scheme used by Agrocomplex to become one of the largest landowners in Europe, with up to 500,000 hectares at its disposal, came to light thanks to resistance from a Korenosvksy collective farm. The farm’s management refused to pay money to people representing the governor’s brother, and then made a complaint to the FSB. 

All the same, the collective farmers found themselves in an unequal battle — Agrocomplex received more financial support from the state than other enterprises. 

With this support, several farms surrendered to Agrocomplex voluntarily, counting on a quiet life under the authorities’ wing. The takeover of other enterprises was more painful. The Kristall sugar factory in Vyselki, for example, became part of Agrocomplex in 2006 after a series of administrative cases were opened against the factory’s leadership for not observing ecological and hygiene standards.  

When news of the Kushchevskaya massacre came out in 2010, many people spoke of the more criminal methods of raiding businesses and land in the Kuban.

Under the protection of the local authorities and police, the Tsapok gang threatened, coerced and murdered their business rivals in Arteks-Agro. If it wasn’t for the brutal murder of 12 people, including four children, Arteks-Agro could have grown into a sizeable agricultural company.

Despite public expectations, Tkachev was not dismissed after the massacre in Kushchevskaya. Moreover, the governor’s family business then took over most of the assets in Kushchevskaya.

Farmers no longer hide their opinion that Aleksandr Tkachev is the biggest raider in the Kuban. Andrei Ovechkin told me how he recently visited a meeting for protesting farmers at the territory’s ministry of agriculture. One of the participants, who represented a holding of some 800 owners of 3,500 hectares of land, said that they were being hounded by the holding of ex-governor Tkachev. “They even had court rulings in their favour, but none were carried out” — recalled Ovechkin. 

The farmer explains the current intensification in land disputes with reference to the status of contracts. The majority of these land contracts expired after legislative amendments were made allowing the transfer of agricultural land. “The time eventually came when owners stood up and demanded control of their plots of land, which the largest agricultural firms categorically do not want”, he continued. On 24 March, around 100 famers from the Krasnodar region announced a protest rally by tractor to Moscow. Photo courtesy of the author.In this standoff, the authorities’ sympathies lie with the largest farms. Deputy governor and minister of agriculture of the Krasnodar region Andrei Korobka openly declared that members of the parliamentary commission would base their decisions on, as he put it, “social responsibility”. That is to say, if an agricultural holding pays more in taxes and employs a larger workforce than the average farmer, sympathy will remain with the big firm.

Aleksei Volchenko rejects this position, as these large holdings had enjoyed preferential conditions from the very beginning — they receive more significant subsidies and can borrow money with lower interest rates. When comparing them same basis, it turns out that the small farmers are actually much more effective. 

Andrei Ovechkin is also certain that small-scale farming is a better guarantee of employment for the local population, and also produces greater crop yields. Furthermore, the owners of large agricultural holdings as a rule do not care much about ecological protection or the infrastructure of local villages.

For example, the roads in Ovechkin’s region — damaged from heavy use by the machinery of large agricultural holdings — are constantly being renovated by the farmers themselves. Unlike the short-term hirelings in the administrations of the larger firms, who can sell their assets and move on at any moment, local farmers treat with more care that which their children and grandchildren will need.

In a sense, the question of the effectiveness of small or large agricultural holdings isn’t simply an economic dispute, but a philosophical one. These violations of laws regulating land ownership and usage reflect, without a doubt, a flaw in the Russian legal system. While farmers may be actively involved in the work of the commission founded by the All-Russian People’s Front and local regional government, they are hardly likely to resolve what is a systemic problem in Russia. A system in which the best corporate raiders are appointed to lead government ministries. 

It wasn’t in vain that Volchenko, after cancelling the motor rally on 28 April, hastened to add that “we haven’t called off our protest. We’ve just delayed it. If our problems aren’t resolved, we’ll take to our tractors in May — and head for Moscow”.

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