After the ban on foreigners buying land in Bulgaria expires on January 1 2014, the plan is to still impose some restrictions, according to the head of Parliament’s committee on agriculture and food, Svetla Buchvarova.
The end of the ban is governed by Bulgaria’s accession treaty with the European Union.
In September, the leader of ultra-nationalist Ataka party, Volen Siderov, called for the ban to be extended. His message was echoed in large part a day later by Dimitar Grekov, agriculture minister in the Bulgarian Socialist Party government.
On October 11, Bulgarian-language daily Trud reported Buchvarova as saying that the moratorium on foreigners buying land could not be extended.
Had Bulgaria wanted to do this, it had a deadline of 2010 to do so. An attempt by the country to renegotiate its treaty with the EU was “just not considered at the time”.
At the time, centre-right government GERB was in office. In 2013, the BSP formed the new government, with the support of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms and the tacit support of Ataka.
Buchvarova said that there were possibilities to introduce restrictions on foreigners acquiring land in Bulgaria.
Asked for examples, she said that this was still being discussed and there would be a final decision at a later stage.
“But what I have seen in that in many EU countries, for example, there are procedures in which the foreigner must indicate the source of the funding. Guarantees are required that the foreigner will work the land, and not leave it idle or for rent,” Bucharova said.
“They are required to give an undertaking that they will hire local workers to work. For example, Italy has introduced a ban on selling land (to foreigners) in border areas for reasons of national security,” she said.
Asked whether fears of foreigners buying up land were exaggerated, she said that “hardly anyone” could assess the extent to which foreigners wanted to buy land in Bulgaria and by what means.
It might hardly be that from January 2014, there would be an influx, “but the state must take action,” she said.
Also on October 11, Plamen Oresharski, appointed in May to the prime minister’s seat in the Bulgarian Socialist Party government, said that extending the moratorium on the sale of land to foreigners would be “very difficult and unrealistic”.
In September, Grekov said that the government wanted the moratorium on selling land to foreigners to continue to 2020.
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.
(Photo: Dido Ivanov)