Capitalist Heads Prevail in Russia

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Amid head-butts, punches and chanting, the Russian parliament Friday passed a measure that paves the way for citizens and foreigners to buy commercial and private land.

But the more controversial matter of selling agricultural land will be dealt with later in a separate law.

The sale of land is an intensely emotional issue in Russia, and debate about a national code governing it has continued since the early 1990s.

Outside parliament, leftist protesters handed out small packets of soil, symbolizing the sellout of Russian land.

In the chamber, they raised a banner reading, "To sell land is to sell the Motherland," and chanted, "Shame, shame."

Nikolai Kharitonov of the Agrarian Party, an ally of the Communists, produced a huge loaf of bread, saying it is still possible to get bread from real Russian fields. The implication was that foreigners would soon be able to buy up the country's farms.

The Communists and their allies dominated the Russian parliament until late 1999, making passage of a law on land sales impossible.

But it was clear that the Communists faced defeat Friday in the State Duma, or lower house, and their rowdy protests only underscored their impotence to stop the sales, a practice banned in Soviet times.

Boris Y. Nemtsov, leader of the right-wing Union of Right Forces faction, said the Communists' defeat is a telling sign of their waning power.

"I think they are bad losers. . . . To all appearances, it is their last splash and a demonstration of their weakness," he said.

Among the forces brought together to pass the bill in its first reading were the pro-Kremlin Unity faction, the Union of Right Forces and the liberal Yabloko party.

Realizing they faced defeat, the Communists and their allies walked out of the Duma before the vote.

"We declare our protest and believe that the government is pushing the country toward mass disorders," said Communist Party leader Gennady A. Zyuganov.

Yuri Chernichenko of the Peasants' Party of Russia, which has been calling for land privatization since the early 1990s, said passage of the bill finally brings Russian law into line with the constitution passed in 1993.

"The Communists were writhing frantically in the Duma today because they realized full well they may be losing their last real battle in Russia," he said. "Today they felt quite vividly for the first time that land is literally slipping from under their feet."

Before it becomes law, the bill must pass two more readings in the Duma and a review by the upper house before being sent to President Vladimir V. Putin for his signature.

Several fistfights broke out as emotions boiled over in the Duma. Millionaire pharmaceuticals manufacturer Vladimir Bryntsalov, a member of the People's Deputy faction, savagely head-butted Georgy Tikhonov of the pro-Communist Regions of Russia faction, who lashed back. The two later threw more punches at each other.

The excitement sparked high blood pressure problems in Speaker Gennady N. Seleznyov, who was taken to a hospital.

When the minister for economic development and trade, German O. Gref, tried to approach the podium, the leftist forces surrounded the rostrum and chanted loudly in a bid to prevent him from speaking.

Forced instead to speak from the government observation box, Gref said the new land sales measure would encourage investment and enable Russians to sell their property. He said 25% of city land is already privately owned.

Land is being sold according to local laws in some regions, but sales have moved slowly because of the absence of a national code.

A deputy from the Union of Right Forces, Viktor Pokhmelkin, put forward a more radical version of the bill, which would have allowed sales of agricultural land, but it was voted down.

"We're staunch supporters of private ownership of land, whereas they [the Communists] want to keep the villages marginal and permanently drunk and maintain directors of state-owned farms who mismanage money," he said.

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