AJ Skiera | Associate Director of Marketing and Communications
Imagine you own a parcel of fertile farmland, but you’re too old to work it, cannot sell it, nor use it as collateral in a bank loan. Would you say that land is really yours?
That hypothetical question is the reality for roughly seven million Ukrainian landowners who, after the collapse of the U.S.S.R., received plots of land from their government as compensation for years of toil on collective farms. Little did they know at the time this gesture would perpetuate years of injustice.
Commonly referred to as the “breadbasket of Europe,” Ukraine is home to vast farmland with some of the most fertile soil in the world. However, between 1932 and 1933, a Stalin-orchestrated famine—referred to today as the Holodomor (meaning “death by hunger” in Ukrainian)—deprived people of basic foodstuffs, and this forced starvation killed millions of Ukrainians.
Millions more civilians would perish in the Second World War from the totalitarian regimes of both Hitler and Stalin in one of the greatest episodes of human suffering in western civilization. Historian Timothy Snyder has popularized the term “Bloodlands” to describe the distinct suffering of the region of Central and Eastern Europe that encompasses the Baltic states, Poland, Belarus, and the very part of Ukraine in which Viktor Tsytsyura was born 80 years ago.
Viktor began his life in Ternopil, Ukraine, before working for 15 years as chief engineer in a machinery manufacturing factory near Lake Baikal, about 20 km from the Russo-Chinese border. He eventually returned to his beloved Ternopil to fill a similar position at another state-run factory nearer to home, living in the same apartment in the same Soviet-era blockhouse with his wife Lubov since 1985.
Viktor and Lubov maintain a dacha and modest garden about 20 km outside Ternopil, which they visit almost every day, resting in the countryside and enjoying fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and grapes.
Viktor’s parents had worked for many years on a Soviet collective farm, and as recompense for their years of labor, they were granted 3.5 hectares of farmland by the Ukrainian government in 2001. They were quite old at the time and long past working age, which was common for individuals receiving such plots of land. Their best move seemed obvious: sell.
Only, they couldn’t.
When the Ukrainian government awarded roughly 32 million hectares of arable land to seven million of its citizens, it also introduced a “one-year” moratorium on selling that land. Nineteen years later, the moratorium is still in place. The landowners have aged. Many are now retired. Nearly a million have already died, including Viktor’s parents.
The policy of the moratorium on farmland sales was designed to “help” the recipients of the land. If no one could sell, no one would be pressured by companies or foreign interests to part with their property. But there were unforeseen consequences: many of these people had no access to finance or lacked the tools to work the land effectively. As a result, much of it lay unutilized or leased for next to nothing.
Viktor felt that he was an “owner” in name only because he couldn’t utilize his property in any meaningful way. He couldn’t even locate the exact location of his plot of land in a vast field. He had only one viable option: to rent it out for a mere US$70 per hectare per year, which is an above-average rate in Ukraine. The soil is versatile and the farmer renting Viktor’s land grows wheat, buckwheat, corn, and sunflowers.
What is unique about the situation is that Ukraine stands alone among the democratic nations of the world by not allowing landowners to legally sell their land. What is not unique about it is that paternalistic policies such as the moratorium often hurt most the people they were designed to help.
When Viktor inherited his parents’ land he soon realized it was worthless; he was unable to work it, unable to sell it, and unable to use it as an investment tool. He thought the days of the Soviet reality were over, but—in the case of his land—they were not. Viktor had been played by the state his entire life, but the U.S.S.R. had collapsed. He has private property, and now 30 years after the fall of the Soviet system, why can’t he do what he wants with it?
Fed up not only with his situation but the situation facing seven million honest Ukrainians like him, he took legal action.
A Legal Challenge
Viktor had always admired the freedoms and rights that the U.S. government has afforded its citizens, chief among them the freedom of speech and the ability to challenge unjust laws. He even read the U.S. Constitution before visiting his local courts, only to be turned away by bureaucrats who told him it was impossible to do anything to challenge the law. Undeterred, he continued his fight for the landowners who “are all prisoners to their situation.”
While watching a national debate show, Viktor noticed Dan Pasko, a Ukrainian businessman, speaking forcefully against the moratorium and promoting “farmland.in.ua,” a website that provides resources for landowners to launch legal challenges to the moratorium. Viktor realized he was not alone in his mission to remove one of the last vestiges of Soviet tyranny. NGOs were actively engaged on the issue (including Atlas Network partners in Ukraine), and so Viktor got in touch with EasyBusiness, the Kyiv-based think tank and Atlas Network partner Pasko co-founded. The Ukrainian Economic Freedoms Foundation, the Centre for Economic Strategy, and Ukrainian Students for Freedom—all Atlas Network partners—have also done extensive and important work on the issue of land reform for many years.
EasyBusiness was founded in 2014, in the wake of Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity, to develop and publicize liberalization policies to help meet the national demand for reform. Taking on the moratorium was one of their first projects, starting with a landmark report in 2015 examining economic and legal implications of the ban. EasyBusiness works with dozens of organizations, including the World Bank, on prospective reform, and their economic models of potential market structures are informing national discussions on transitioning to a market economy.
However, the EasyBusiness team soon realized that to succeed they needed to involve the landowners adversely affected by the moratorium in their efforts. So, they created the farmland.in.ua website to provide a platform to amplify the concerns of landowners. Over 500 landowners registered their information online, about 20 filed claims to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), and two cases were accepted, including Viktor’s.
Viktor connected with EasyBusiness and a pro-bono legal NGO—Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union—to file a case to the ECHR challenging the constitutionality of the moratorium on the basis that it violated the Ukrainian constitution and the human rights of its citizens.
In May 2018, the ECHR ruled that the moratorium violated the human rights of Ukraine’s citizens and that the Ukrainian government ought to make necessary changes to the law or else pay damages of US$50 billion to the affected landowners. EasyBusiness was consulted on the economic and legal aspects of the moratorium by the ECHR and is named as a third party in the lawsuit.
A bill to lift the moratorium passed its first reading in November 2019, but a pitched legislative battle stretching several months and triggering thousands of proposed amendments threatened to defeat the latest reform effort. However, in March 2020, the Ukrainian parliament passed the crucial second reading of the proposed law to finally end the moratorium and establish a land market in 2021.
Though imperfect, this new law is a major step in restoring the property rights of millions of people. EasyBusiness had analyzed four possible market structures, and their team estimates that a fully liberalized market will yield up to US$100 billion in investment in Ukraine, which—when combined with the avoidance of the US$50 billion penalty—is a $150 billion economic boost over the status quo.
Viktor has worked hard his entire life, first as an engineer and now as a public advocate. He loves his country and is a proud Ukrainian patriot. His purpose is simple: he would like to leave something behind for his granddaughter and his great-grandson, and he would like for others like him to have the same opportunity. He believes that allowing millions of men and women just like him to exercise their full private property rights will drive the country forward both morally and financially. He is fighting for what is right.
Viktor Tsytsyura is a living example of the story of Ukraine the last hundred years: a story of hard work and some suffering yet also a story of hope and tenacity in the quest for a better, more prosperous future. Both he and EasyBusiness speak truth to power, and their advocacy has helped push the national debate on the moratorium past a critical milestone and the government will soon end the ban and allow a freer market for farmland in Ukraine. Viktor has even been asked by a local museum for his personal documents so that his activism on behalf of millions of Ukrainian citizens may be commemorated.
With the prospective removal of the moratorium and the implementation of an agricultural land market, landowners will not be forced to sell their land—they merely will be given the right to do as they choose. And that is the essence of the freedom for which Viktor has so ardently advocated: the absence of compulsion and the ability to exercise full control over that which is his.
Viktor just wants to sell his land. The choice should be his.
His fight for freedom is our fight for freedom.