Just a day after Bulgarian ultra-nationalist Ataka party leader Volen Siderov demanded that the country extend the ban on the sale of agricultural land to foreigners by seven years, Dimitar Grekov – agriculture minister in the Bulgarian Socialist Party cabinet – confirmed that the government wanted the moratorium to continue to 2020.
In accordance with Bulgaria’s accession treaty with the European Union, the ban of the purchase of Bulgarian land by foreigners is scheduled to fall away on January 1 2014, seven years after the country joined the EU.
Speaking to reporters on September 18, Siderov – who in May provided the quorum in Parliament that made it possible for the Bulgarian Socialist Party and Movement for Rights and Freedoms governing axis to come to power – demanded that the ban be extended to 2020.
Siderov, who has xenophobia among the stock-in-trade of his party, argued that prices of land in Bulgaria were 10 times lower than elsewhere in Europe, and it would be bought up by foreigners, in his view preventing Bulgaria being able to plan the future of agriculture in the country.
He painted a picture of wealthy foreign companies buying up Bulgaria “and we would wake up as foreigners in our own country”.
On September 19, the same day that opposition party GERB tabled a motion of no confidence in the cabinet, a move that faces certain defeat with Ataka effectively standing with the BSP-MRF ruling axis, Grekov said that the government wanted the ban extended, arguing that agricultural land in the country was fragmented.
“We have no fear that land will be bought entirely by foreigners,” Grekov said, “but ultimately we need to stabilise our agricultural production, as well as our farmers”.
He said that the issue would be put the agricultural committee in Parliament and the full National Assembly and said that the agreement of the European Commission also would be required.
According to Grekov, there was interest among foreigners in buying agricultural land. He said that companies from Qatar and Bahrain wanted to buy Bulgarian land to raise animals.
In law, the ban applies to foreign individuals but not companies and it is common practice for foreigners who want to buy land to do so through companies.
Siderov referred to this in his September 18 remarks, saying that foreigners were just waiting for January 1 2014 to “legalise” their ownership of the land.
Local media reports said that there was support among producers’ associations for an extension to the ban, with grain producers fearing that unless this was done, Bulgarian land would rapidly “fall into the wrong hands”.
Radoslav Hristov of the National Grain Producers Association said that would have a negative impact on small-scale farmers in particular, because they would not be able to compete with the financial capacity of foreign individuals.
The proportion of agricultural land in Bulgaria has been shrinking as it has been converted to other purposes.
Grekov admitted that he did not know what proportion of agricultural land in Bulgaria was owned by foreigners because, he said, the Bulgarian-registered companies used to buy land were “mixed” with local and foreign participation.
He said that he had not heard of any other EU member state making such a request to the European Commission.
Local media said that in spite of claims to the contrary, demand for agricultural land in Bulgaria was not high precisely because of its fragmentation.
The current pattern of agricultural land in Bulgaria was shaped in large measure by the sweeping process of nationalisation during the communist era, which was followed by a rapid, chaotic and partly inconclusive process of land restitution, in turn complicated by plots of land frequently being the subject of rival claims and differing plans by heirs with a legal entitlement to them.
(Photo: Dido Ivanov)