Swedes help private farms prosper: Russia's former commune workers are going it alone with the aid of foreign cash and equipment, Helen Womack writes from Glazovo

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The Independent Online
IN THE old days when a foreign correspondent visited a Soviet collective farm, the chairman would lay on a long boozy lunch designed to show off the fruits of the land, while minimising opportunities for inspecting the fields or meeting any of the workers. The hospitality of Alexei Kochetkov's farm in Glazovo, north of Moscow, is confined to a cup of coffee before a tour of the cattle sheds - an encouraging sign that this private farmer has nothing to hide and better things to do with his time than put on an empty show for journalists.

Mr Kochetkov spent most of his working life as a tractor driver on the huge Bratsevskaya state poultry farm, which used to stretch over the land he now owns, and he knows all about the wastes of overmanning and lack of incentive that are the bane of the collective system. Today, with only five members of his family and two outside labourers, he works like a Western farmer from morning till night, keeping 55 dairy cows and growing a range of arable crops on 400 hectares (988 acres) of land split off from the Bratsevskaya complex. The state farm, which used to employ 350 people on 900 hectares, retains 500 hectares and is cutting back on staff.

Life is far from easy for most of the 260,000 Russians who have started private farms, as they face resistance from the collectives, difficulty in obtaining credit and even, in some areas, violence form bandits who rob them of their hard-earned relative wealth. But the only thing Mr Kochetkov complains of is this summer's endless rain, which has ruined his hay.

'This barn should be full to the roof at this time of year,' he says, showing a long concrete shed strewn with a few bales. 'I don't know what the cows will eat in winter but the Swedes will come up with an answer.'

'The Swedes' are agrarian specialists sent over by the firm Alsa-Laval and the Swedish Farmers Association who have invested money in and provided pristine milking machinery and shiny new tractors for Mr Kochetkov's venture. It is because he has their sponsorship and protection that he is doing so much better than the average Russian private farmer.

The deal is very advantageous to him. Mr Kochetkov was put forward by the management of the Bratsevskaya farm when, in 1988, the Swedes were looking for a Russian whom they could set up in a private agricultural enterprise as a learning model for others.

Mr Kochetkov owns the farm and can pass it on to his children and grandchildren although, because of present Russian land laws, he cannot sell it except back to the state. What the Swedes get out of this arrangement is prestige and advertising for the 10 years they have promised to be involved in the project.

Mr Kochetkov occasionally seems to resent that he cannot take any big decisions without consulting his Swedish partners, but mostly he is full of praise for their expertise.

And, of course, Mr Kochetkov is acutely aware that without the Swedes he would be struggling to survive in a still hostile environment for private farmers. 'You have to have a sponsor,' he says. 'Equipment costs a fortune, the politicians can't make up their minds whether they are for us or against us and it is impossible to get government grants or credit.'

The biggest obstacle to the development of private farming is the resistance of the collectives, which say they can make economies of scale and are better suited to the Russian character. Pavel Markov, another one of Mr Kochetkov's neighbours, fell victim to such an attitude. A former collective-farm worker, he rented land from his old employer, successfully growing potatoes on it and hoping to privatise it. But when the collective farm decided to become a joint-stock company, giving a tiny plot to each of its workers, Mr Markov had to surrender his land and rejoin the community. The farm remains an inefficient collective in all but name. And Mr Markov, who showed more initiative and capacity for hard work than his fellows, has had to say goodbye to his dream of becoming his own master.

A Russian Deputy Prime Minister, Alexander Zaveryukha, yesterday predicted a record 1993 grain harvest of 120-125 million tons, compared with 106.8 million tons last year.

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