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Moldovan Families Getting Back Land

December 30, 1997

BULAESTI, Moldova (AP) _ Alexei Platon still remembers his family’s old farm. He was 18 when Soviet dictator Josef Stalin sent his men down from Moscow to rough up this village on rolling hills and rich black soil.

``The kulaks (landowners) just disappeared one night. In the morning they were gone,″ Platon said, recalling the forced collectivization campaign of 1949.

The large landowners were killed or exiled to Siberia, and Platon’s parents were forced to surrender their 37-acre farm to the state.

Now he is about to get a small piece back.

Platon is one of more than 1,000 people scheduled to receive land in Bulaesti, whose collective farm is one of 72 being broken up and handed out to peasants in this former Soviet republic by March.

Guided by the U.S. Agency for International Development, the land program is intended to bolster economic reforms by restoring property rights and to help push the largely agricultural country of 4.3 million people out of its post-communist doldrums by creating a land market.

Unlike Russia and most of Ukraine, where collectivization began in the 1920s, Moldova was not part of the Soviet Union until World War II, so there are more people like Platon who remember owning land.

Across the former Soviet Union, land reform efforts have been hobbled by old-style communist lawmakers and self-interested farm bosses who fear losing their power and status if land is privatized.

In Russia, for example, President Boris Yeltsin wants to privatize farm land, but has been opposed at every turn by communists who dominate parliament.

Moldova, nestled between Ukraine and Romania, has moved ``further faster than anybody in the former Soviet Union in privatizing farmland and giving real land titles to people who are living on collective farms,″ said Gregory Huger, AID’s mission director for Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova.

At the request of the Moldovan government, the U.S. agency is planning to expand the land project nationwide in 1998. An additional 500 farms will be divided up, leaving only about 30 percent of Moldova’s agricultural land in state hands.

Platon will receive only 2.4 acres of the land his parents owned, but his eyes glinted through the deep lines of his face while he talked about the program. He said he was glad to get any back _ ``even a tiny piece.″

His portion is so small because the farms are being divided into equal parcels among the collective’s members. Past ownership claims are not taken into account, even if there is documentation.

Moldova’s government hopes becoming landholders will stimulate farmers to work harder and stimulate agricultural development. Years of Soviet rule and a decade of economic decline has left bumpy roads, horse-drawn carts and rusty machinery.

``It’s tough to change the mentality of simple people, who may be unable to adapt to the new way,″ Konstantin Palanchuk, the former chief agronomist at the Bulaesti collective farm, told U.S. Ambassador John Todd Stewart during a recent lunch at the town hall.

``They’ve been taught all their lives that the land belongs to everybody _ but at the same time to nobody.″

Palanchuk heads a group of 230 people in Bulaesti who will pool their land parcels under his direction after they receive their titles.

Some of the new Moldovan landowners plan to make a living off their own plots, but most are forming larger groups like Palanchuk’s in hopes of creating a more efficient and competitive operation.

Platon plans to lead a smallish group of people pooling their parcels.

``We have to stick together,″ said Iustin Panaenti, down the road in Donici, where collective farm members received colorful land titles in an October ceremony.

Panaenti is one of 334 Donici peasants who will lease their new parcels to the former manager of their collective farm. Of 928 people receiving titles, only 139 plan to farm their plots individually.

Even if they band together, the new landowners will have a difficult time raising money for new equipment in a country with a weak economy.

``We don’t know what the future will bring,″ said Yevrosenia Frunze, clutching a sheaf of papers giving her title to a plot in Donici. ``We want to be able to feed our families.″

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