After a lengthy debate, Bulgaria’s National Assembly voted on October 22 to approve a motion by Volen Siderov’s ultra-nationalist party Ataka to extend to the year 2020 a moratorium on selling land to foreign individuals and foreign legal entities.
The motion was approved by 171 votes to 38, with 12 of the 240 members of the National Assembly formally abstaining.
Amendments by other parties, respectively to hand the Cabinet the task of coming up with restrictions on land ownership by foreigners, or amending laws on land ownership to protect national interests, were rejected.
The resolution requires the Cabinet to prepare draft legislation to extend the moratorium to 2020, although the wording does not specify a deadline for them to come up with these amendments.
Part of Bulgaria’s European Union accession treaty, the moratorium is set to expire as of January 1 2014.
In the course of the debate, Ataka was backed by centre-right GERB, the single largest party in Parliament, but the motion was opposed by MPs from the Bulgarian Socialist Party, current holder of the mandate to govern. In the end, however, there were BSP MPs who voted with Ataka and GERB to see the Siderov motion approved.
Moments after the Siderov motion was approved, Speaker of Parliament Mihail Mikov, a senior member of the BSP, said that adoption of the resolution would mean serious problems for Bulgaria with its “European image”.
Leaving the Speaker’s chair to address the House from the podium, Mikov said that “today, the 42nd National Assembly has shown that apparently it is not familiar with the history of the constitution and the path that Bulgaria has come in the past 10 to 15 years.”
He said that the motion might be acceptable at first sight, but the motives behind the motion did not comply with the content of the constitution.
“Modern Bulgaria cannot take decisions on the basis of political populism,” Mikov said.
By the standards of the 42nd National Assembly, the hours proceedings, while interrupted by abrupt adjournments and several points of order, were relatively calm and even saw Siderov making an across-the-aisle reconciliatory plea for all-party support for his motion, which he portrayed as a matter of national responsibility. He and GERB’s Tsveta Karayancheva found themselves on the same side, in sharp contrast to the dramatic events between them in the House at the previous sitting.
Siderov told Parliament that his party’s main argument for wanting the moratorium extended was the low price of land in Bulgaria, which he – citing statistics – claimed to be the lowest in the European Union.
“We must prevent the plundering of Bulgaria’s most valuable resource,” Siderov said.
Karayancheva said that everything possible should be done to extend the moratorium on the sale of land to foreigners. Seventy per cent of Bulgarians supported it, she said.
Bulgaria’s income standards, which she said were 10 times lower than those of Europe, would put Bulgarians at a severe disadvantage in seeking to buy land, according to Karayancheva.
Further, the end of the moratorium would force Bulgarians to choose between renting out land or reducing the cultivated area, which would reduce the competitiveness of Bulgarian farmers in Europe, she said.
Karayancheva said that there were other countries where such bans were in force – China, Estonia and Belarus among them – while Hungary was preparing a new law to ban the sale of agricultural land to foreigners.
Yanaki Stoilov, head of Parliament’s foreign affairs committee, which earlier voted to reject the proposed extension of the moratorium, told the House that a ban on the purchase of agricultural land would continue to be in effect as regards citizens of non-EU countries after January 1 2014.
He said that he acknowledged that the topic was an important and sensitive one for most Bulgarians, given the low prices of farmland in Bulgaria and the low purchasing power of Bulgarians, which Stoilov said that most buyers would be investment funds and individuals with lots of money to spend.
But, he said, extending the moratorium was “impossible” because this would require the government to seek to renegotiate the EU accession treaty, which “even with the best will” could not achieve anything before January 1 2014.
He hinted that if Bulgaria sought to renegotiate the moratorium on the sale of land to foreigners, it could find itself targeted by reciprocal action to extend labour market restrictions on Bulgarians by other EU countries.
Stoilov’s fellow Bulgarian Socialist Party MP, Anton Koutev, said that in any case, the moratorium did not work because land was bought by companies, including companies registered offshore.
“The moratorium does not prevent a Sheikh coming to Bulgaria to register a company to buy land,” Koutev said, adding that there were funds that owned hundreds of thousands of acres of Bulgarian land. To address this, there should be legislation limiting the size of land that could be bought, he said.
He dismissed what he called “speculation” that the end of the moratorium would see “Kuwaitis and Turks” coming to buy land because, as had been pointed out, the end of the moratorium did not apply to non-EU citizens.
For this restriction to disappear would require Bulgaria to have a bilateral agreement on the matter with the third country, and such a bilateral treaty would require the approval of two-thirds of the members of the National Assembly, Stoilov added later in the debate, underlining that in the case of citizens of Bulgaria’s neighbouring countries such as Macedonia and Turkey, the ban would remain in place.
Also speaking for the BSP, MP Mincho Minchev said that nothing stood in the way of Parliament approving legislation that would restrict the sale of land to foreigners in certain circumstances and forestalling “evil intentions”.
GERB’s Vladimir Toshev said that continuing the moratorium was vital to Bulgaria’s national security.
“We must not allow the land to be bought for speculation,” said Toshev, who also argued that “the nations of Asia are increasingly taught to eat meat” and it took more land to produce meat than it did for grain.
Toshev gave an example from Madagascar where, he said, a large land acquisition had been followed two weeks later by the government falling.
Toshev unleashed a chain of procedural issues when he proposed augmenting Ataka’s motion with amendments requiring the Cabinet, should the motion be passed, to within two weeks seek the amendment of the EU treaty.
Movement for Rights and Freedoms leader Lyutvi Mestan said that the Ataka-GERB move to extend the moratorium would not resolve a single issue but would instead create several new ones.
He said that the issue of land ownership had been part of Bulgaria’s EU accession process, and one of the principles that enabled the admission of Bulgaria to the EU was a transfer of sovereignty.
Mestan proposed that the matter be postponed until all parties in the National Assembly could reach a consensus, but a tie in a vote on this proposal resulted in its defeat.
Responding to Mestan, Siderov said that he had underlined that he did not see the moratorium as a solution to all problems, but that the extension of it to 2020 would create the space to resolve problems.
In turn, later in proceedings, Mestan said that extending the moratorium could put Bulgaria at risk of penalties from the European Commission.
Late in debate, Stoilov proposed a separate amendment, proposing referral of the matter to the Cabinet to come up with a solution on land purchase law that would protect Bulgarian national interests.
Ataka’s Pavel Shopov objected, saying that the amendment fundamentally contradicted the original proposal.
* Bulgaria has to comply with the arrangements it has signed, including those about the sale of farmland to foreigners, Bulgarian President Rossen Plevneliev said in the city of Stara Zagora, according to a report by local news agency Focus.
Long ago Bulgaria had signed the most important strategic documents determining its position as a member of the European family, including the EU Accession Treaty, Plevneliev said.
“So Bulgaria made clear commitments. When we want to be an EU member, we have to be aware that we become a member also of the single market. When we are a member of the single market, we have to behave like Bulgarians, like Europeans. This is a conscious choice of the Bulgarian nation. So we will respect the rules and treaties we have signed so that we are worthy Europeans,” he said.
Plevneliev said that even now it was possible for foreigners to buy farmland in Bulgaria. They have to set up a company and buy agricultural land through it, he said.