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Land sale to foreigners a threat?

LEGAL barriers preventing some foreign nationals from buying land in Slovakia should be lifted in a couple of weeks. A group of MPs and citizens oppose this arrangement and are already attempting to change it. The Agriculture Ministry, however, says there is no reason to panic.

LEGAL barriers preventing some foreign nationals from buying land in Slovakia should be lifted in a couple of weeks. A group of MPs and citizens oppose this arrangement and are already attempting to change it. The Agriculture Ministry, however, says there is no reason to panic.

Slovakia put a moratorium on selling agricultural land to foreign nationals upon its entry into the EU on May 1, 2004. In 2011, the EU approved Slovakia’s request to extend the moratorium by three years, with an expiration date of April 30, 2014.

Opposition MPs with the Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (OĽaNO) movement are concerned about the post-moratorium development and recently announced they are initiating a special parliamentary session to deal with what they call “the protection of Slovak land from sale to foreigners”.

MPs Jozef Viskupič, Martin Fecko and Helena Mezenská announced at a press conference on April 15 that more than 30 MPs (the number of deputies needed to convene a special session) have promised to sign a motion on summoning a session on the matter. The MPs want the government to inform them of what steps it plans to take to prevent foreigners from buying Slovak land.

MPs want fast action

“In the case of water, a civic initiative in Europe managed to achieve that [water] became a human right,” noted Viskupič, who is leading the party’s slate in the European Parliament elections, adding that they want to achieve the same with soil. Their ambitions go as far as starting a Europe-wide initiative to protect land by classifying it as national cultural heritage.

Fecko warned of a “legal vacuum” looming after the date that will enable foreigners to buy up large swaths of Slovak land in an unregulated fashion. He claimed that the government has known all along that the moratorium could not be extended, but did not prepare any legislative measures that would be effective as of May 1, when the moratorium expires. Fecko admitted the government introduced a law on agricultural land ownership last year, but did not send it to parliament in time.
OĽaNO MPs now want the legislation to be passed in a fast-tracked procedure.

According to Fecko, other countries either apply the pre-emptive right of the state, or only allow those with permanent residence in the country to buy land in that country.

Petition underway

This is not the first time OĽaNO MPs have gotten involved in the issue of selling land. The party’s MP and failed presidential candidate Helena Mezenská started a petition on the subject in March this year, and has collected close to 20,000 signatures so far.

The petition’s text contains claims like “Slovak land is the basis of statehood and sovereignty of the nation”, and “out of respect for our ancestors and love for our descendants”, calling the sale of land to foreigners a form of high treason. The petition goes on to say that if foreign subjects own Slovak land, they might also manage to obtain the country’s biggest repositories of water and other natural resources.

Don’t panic, says ministry

The Agriculture Ministry claims that even though there is no law at the moment to deal with selling agricultural land to foreign nationals after the moratorium’s May 1 expiration date, it does not mean that it will not be regulated at all.

“It isn’t true that the end of the moratorium on the sale of agricultural land will concern all foreigners,” ministry spokesperson Peter Hajnala said, as quoted by the TASR newswire, explaining that the restrictions will only be lifted for EU member states and their citizens, and legal entities with headquarters in member countries of the EU and the European Economic Area.

“Only these entities will have the same rights and duties related to transfers of ownership of agricultural land as Slovak citizens,” said Hajnala.

Earlier this month Viskupič argued that Hungary and Poland had managed to secure more restrictive conditions than Slovakia in this sphere, and reported that he had specific information about a project involving Chinese buying out tens of thousands of hectares of Slovak land, TASR reported.

Hajnala noted that Poland and Hungary’s measures may be problematic vis-a-vis their conformity with the EU legal order. He informed that the Slovak ministry is preparing legislation that should reduce the risk of foreign entities purchasing agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes.

Not much change

The moratorium has actually not had much of an effect on foreigners’ ability to buy land in Slovakia, spokesman of the Slovak Agricultural and Food Chamber (SPPK) Stanislav Nemec told The Slovak Spectator in October 2013.

“It hasn’t been very effective because it prevented land sales only for foreigners as natural persons, but foreign legal persons could acquire it basically without limits,” Nemec said, explaining that all that foreigners needed to do was negotiate with land owners through a company which they would establish for this purpose. The UniCredit Bank’s estimates from 2013 show that about 40-45,000 hectares of arable land in Slovakia is controlled by foreigners, while about 25,000 of that it also owned by foreigners.

“Our chamber is concerned that this number might be even higher, but since there are no official statistics in this matter, we can only work with estimates,” Nemec told The Slovak Spectator.

Radka Minarechová contributed to this report

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